By Richard Belfield
The Faversham Post Office shut yet again this month “until further notice.”. According to the notice in the window this was “due to unforeseen circumstances”
Thankfully the closure – due to staff shortages – was short-lived. With the lockdown in place and visits to friends and relatives indefinitely on hold the post office is a lifeline for many in the town. The prospect of a longer shutdown is cause for serious concern.
But, as detailed in previous issues of the Faversham Eye, periodic closures were entirely foreseen. They were the inevitable outcome of the disastrous privatisation last year which went ahead despite a local campaign and petition to save the town's Crown Post Office.
As a Crown Post Office – a larger, high street branch directly managed by Post Office Ltd – Faversham employed eleven staff. The post office then gave the franchise to ZCO, a company with a terrible track record. ZCO immediately fired them all. They tried to replace them, offering contracts at minimum wage. So far, the company has only managed to find four new staff. That is not enough to keep it open in normal times as was seen at Christmas when it had to shut on what is traditionally one of the busiest days of the year.
The incompetent management of basic health and safety for staff is making a bad situation worse.
Faversham is no different to any other post office. Like everywhere else in the postal service there were no gloves, hand sanitisers or personal protection gear for staff. Staff were told there was none available, which they knew was untrue as they were delivering it every day, with some post offices selling it over the counter.
It is not known if local staff are affected. However, if Faversham is typical of the other post offices there may well be closures for long periods quite soon.
The Post Office Human Resources department has carried out its own secret internal analysis. This shows that – at the time of going to press – around one in three of the 21,000 counter staff are off work with Covid-19 related issues. They either have it, are in the high risk vulnerable group or have had to self isolate after coming into contact with someone who has it.
Post offices are very high risk areas for coronavirus. All letters, forms and parcels are handled by customers and staff alike. One of the key transmission areas are the self service machines which have to be continually touched by customers and staff alike. Ironically, Faversham has been so short staffed, they had to switch them off.
The post office is a crucial part of the community. The chronic shortage of staff means that long queues – prime sources of cross infection – are now the norm and that is unlikely to change any time soon.
When the lockdown is over, the problems of Faversham post office will still be there. There will be closures – not as a result of coronavirus but the inevitable result of privatisation and incompetent management.
While a third of the counter staff have Covid-19 issues, the Chief executive Rico Back gets paid £12,500 a week working from home – a penthouse overlooking Lake Geneva in Switzerland. It is reported that he got back to Geneva after the lockdown started. The Chief Operating Officer, Achim Dunnwald, is also working from home - in Germany. Rico Back got a £6 million hello when he joined the post office.
As we go to press the queue for the Post Office is all the way back into Preston Street.