COVID-19 vaccine minister voices concern on spread of virus in supermarkets

Shoppers browse for goods inside an Lidl supermarket in Walthamstow in north east London on December 22, 2020. - The British government said Tuesday it was considering tests for truckers as part of talks with French authorities to allow the resumption of freight traffic suspended due to a new strain of coronavirus. Britain was plunged into fresh crisis last week with the emergence of a fresh strain of the virus, which is believed to be up to 70 percent more transmissible than other forms. (Photo by Tolga Akmen / AFP) (Photo by TOLGA AKMEN/AFP via Getty Images)

The UK government is worried about the spread of COVID-19 in supermarkets, particularly due to people not following mask rules, the minister for vaccine deployment Nadhim Zahawi said on Monday morning.

He told Sky News: “We are concerned that, for example, in supermarkets we need to make sure people actually wear masks and follow the one-way system, and when they are at capacity to operate safely, people wait outside.”

He urged people to comply with the rules when grocery shopping.

"The lockdown is actually pretty severe, we're asking people to stay at home, don't go out, if you have to go out it's only for exercise," he said.

Zahawi’s pleas come as case loads are mounting. The UK reported 54,940 new cases of the virus on Sunday. This was a slight drop from the number on Saturday. Data also showed 563 new deaths within 28 days of a positive test.

The numbers at the weekend are often lower due to delays in data collection, still, mortalities had topped 1,000 for four consecutive days on Sunday.

WATCH: UK records another 563 coronavirus deaths and 54,940 new cases

Supermarkets have been in the spotlight during the pandemic for myriad reasons. In November, data from the Track and Trace app showed that grocery shops in England were the most common places people cited visiting in the days before a positive test.

There was also concern that Christmas food shopping could lead to an uptick in cases, on top of the potential for spreading the virus when the rules were relaxed on Christmas day.

Morrisons said on Monday that it would ban shoppers that failed to comply with mask-wearing rules unless they are medically exempt.

READ MORE: MPs launch inquiry on the impact of COVID-19 on British nightlife

Before Christmas, more than 300 Tesco (TSCO) stores across the country said they would trade for 24-hours from 14 December to Christmas eve to spread out shoppers. While many other stores are expected to extend their hours by opening from 5am.

Tesco — Britain’s biggest supermarket chain — has also installed a traffic light system in majority of its stores to help regulate the number of shoppers.

Meanwhile, several other stores, Waitrose included, said they would launch queueing apps.

Asda has been trialling queueing app Qudini since the spring, while, Sainsbury’s (SBRY.L) has enabled virtual queues via a different app in some shops.

READ MORE: Ocado becomes first large grocer to warn of stock shortages

These measures are alongside disinfectant wipes and hand sanitisers provided by businesses to stop the spread of the virus on surfaces.

Supermarkets are among the only places people have been allowed to go under national lockdown and Tier 4 restrictions. Deemed “essential retailers,” they have experienced a boom in sales as a result of stay at home orders.

In December, Sainsbury’s, Aldi, Asda and Morrisons (MRW.L) said they would repay the government for savings made under a tax break for UK firms struggling during the pandemic.

The four supermarkets made the announcements just a day after Tesco confirmed a similar decision to pay back £585m ($783.7m) in business rate relief.

Watch: Should I pay off debt or save money during the pandemic?