QR codes could become ‘flashpoint for customer abuse’

angry woman

Threats, abuse and violence in and around shops have skyrocketed since the pandemic began, new figures show

Data compiled for the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employee’s Association (SDA), which represents workers including pharmacy assistants, has found this abuse and violence has escalated by up to 78% in some parts of Sydney alone.

The data, compiled by the McKell Institute from Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research data, show incidents of intimidation, stalking and harassment at retail and wholesale premises rising from 24% in Fairfield to 44% in the CBD and up to 78% in Campbelltown over the financial year.

 Gerard Dwyer, National Secretary of the SDA, told the AJP that, “This a scourge right across the country and across all outlets, whether they be supermarkets, pharmacies, hardware stores or fast food providers”.

“Government and operators need to take this into account and be prepared to act to ensure the safety of their staff,” he warned.

Bernie Smith, NSW Secretary of the SDA, said that as retail shops which have been closed to the public during the pandemic prepare to re-open, QR codes and vaccine passports could become a “flashpoint for customer abuse” at all shops.

“These increases are as alarming as they are predictable,” he said.

Professional Pharmacists Australia president Dr Geoff March agreed, saying that pharmacists and pharmacy assistants have already suffered from outbursts of customer anger while they remained open during lockdowns.

“While we acknowledge that the COVID-19 pandemic has been an incredibly stressful time for the community, it’s never acceptable for frontline workers including pharmacists and pharmacy staff to be threatened, intimidated or abused by customers,” Dr March said.

“For over 18 months, Australia’s pharmacists have undertaken significant risks to continue their vital work protecting the community’s health.

“Pharmacists are now also heavily involved in delivering the COVID-19 vaccination program which is fundamental in moving the nation out of lockdown and to saving lives.

“We ask pharmacy customers to reflect on the incredible contribution of pharmacists and pharmacy workers throughout this pandemic and to treat them with the respect and recognition they deserve.

“We also remind employers that they have a legal obligation to create a healthy and safe workplace for their staff and they have a role to play in preventing staff from being subjected to occupational abuse and violence.”  

Anthony Tassone, president of the Pharmacy Guild’s state branch in Victoria – a state which has seen several often violent protests against lockdown and vaccination against COVID-19 – said that he and his staff have been among those copping abuse.

“With the rising case numbers being endured in Victoria hitting now record levels – along with the announcement of mandatory vaccination orders, there have unfortunately been cases of rude and abusive behaviour by the public towards pharmacy staff (including my own),” he told the AJP.  

“Frustratingly, some have learned nothing from 2020, where staff in essential services such as supermarkets and community pharmacies bore the brunt of unacceptable behaviour all while they were there and continue to be on the front line trying to help the public.

“The vast majority of the public appreciate the continuing great work of community pharmacies and are grateful that they can now receive both the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine for patients 12 years and up along with the AstraZeneca vaccine from their local pharmacy,” Mr Tassone said.

“Pharmacies who encounter rude and abusive behaviour from the public should not hesitate to ask them to leave if they feel there is a risk to the health and safety of their staff and patients in store, or even call the police.”

He urged the general public to reconsider being aggressive towards retail staff and pharmacists.

“It should never have come to this,” Mr Tassone said.

“It shouldn’t be this hard—people need to take responsibility for their own actions and behaviour. 

“We may not all be in the same boat but we are in the same storm, and the person across the counter from you is a person with their own challenges just trying to get through their day and do the best they can.

“Members of the public who exhibit this behaviour wouldn’t want their son, daughter, mother or father treated in this way at their workplace. 

“Enough is enough—we’re here to help and have been from the start, but don’t deserve to be treated badly just trying to do our job which is becoming increasingly demanding with each passing week at the moment.”

The McKell Institute data showed that the recent increase is an acceleration of a trend which has been going on 10 years, which has seen incidents increase 66% to 2,514 in 2020-21 (NSW only).

In NSW, intimidation, stalking and harassment incidents at retail/wholesale premises increased by 22% since before the COVID-19 pandemic (2018-19 to 2020-21).

Incidents in the Sydney LGA have increased by 42% throughout the pandemic.

PDL and the Pharmacy Guild have jointly developed a poster pharmacies can put up to remind customers of their responsibilities in this area (see picture).

Pharmacists who feel the need to speak with somebody confidentially about challenging circumstances at the workplace are reminded to consider contacting the Pharmacists Support Service on 1300 244 910.

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