Boots accused of harming social distancing by roping off HQ toilets

Rob Davies
·4-min read
<span>Photograph: Arcaid Images/Alamy</span>
Photograph: Arcaid Images/Alamy

Boots roped off office toilets for executives during the pandemic, making it harder for ordinary employees to practise social distancing, the Guardian has learned.

The pharmacy firm was criticised last week for “encouraging” staff to come into the head office in Nottingham, where cases are the highest in England, despite government guidelines to the contrary.

Now the Guardian has learned that some staff members were already furious after they tried to use the toilets only to find a notice telling them they were barred.

A sign pinned to the women’s toilet door, seen by the Guardian, read: “Washroom: maintain social distancing. Reserved for WBA executive team.”

WBA stands for Walgreens Boots Alliance, the name of Boots’ US-owned parent company.

One staff member said they had been told that the area including the toilet was “reserved for Ornella”, likely to be a reference to Ornella Barra, the company’s co-chief operating officer and the life partner of Boots’ billionaire chief executive and largest shareholder, Stefano Pessina.

The employee said the toilet restriction meant they and other colleagues were to forced walk much further, past many more desks, to find another one.

The fact that there were fewer toilets available also meant they were being used by more people, they said, making social distancing even harder.

While Boots has put in place cleaning regimes and social distancing protocols, staff are understood to have complained about the toilets policy, which was reversed after a two-week period in mid-September.

One member of staff said: “It left a bad taste in everyone’s mouths as it was just another example of Boots saying it’s safe to be back in the office but clearly not safe enough that the execs want to mix with the rest of the staff.”

Last week, the Guardian revealed that Boots had “encouraged” employees in Nottingham to spend some of the week in the office, despite government advice to work from home where possible, and the extremely high rate of infections in Nottingham.

The company communicated its preference in emails from senior managers including UK managing director Seb James, an Old Etonian who was a member of Oxford University’s infamous Bullingdon Club at the same time as Boris Johnson.

Boots last week denied putting pressure on staff to come into the office, indicating that any employees who understood the messages that way had misinterpreted its intentions.

It offered exemptions for people who were shielding or displaying symptoms but not for those who felt unwilling to come to work due to the high number of cases.

Seven more staff have since come forward to say they were dismayed by the company’s attitude to employees who did not feel it was safe to return to the office.

One said: “There is nothing I can do in the office that I can’t do at home and this is the case for the vast majority of head office workers.

“Yet we are being bullied and intimidated into continuing to spend part of our working week in the office with an underlying threat that there will be consequences for our jobs if we refuse.”

A second said managers were disregarding the concerns of employees about returning to the office while Covid cases were so high, while another said staff were “absolutely” put under pressure to come in.

Nadia Whittome, Labour MP for Nottingham East, said: “At a time when Nottingham is recording hundreds of new Covid-19 cases every single day, it’s completely irresponsible for employers to ask staff to come into the workplace unless absolutely necessary.

“This ignores government advice and puts the health of workers and their families at risk. The people of Nottingham have made huge sacrifices to stop the spread of the virus, and they expect businesses to do their bit as well.

“I am urging Boots to rethink its policy, let workers stay at home, and support our efforts to combat the pandemic and save lives.”

In a new statement, Boots said its head office was vital in keeping its medicine and healthcare businesses running and that it would support anyone who wanted to work from home.

The company said some toilets had been restricted “to ensure we can maintain social distancing and not compromise colleague safety”.

“If colleagues have thoughts about their working arrangements or the layout of the office, then we encourage them to discuss this with either their line manager, employee representative or HR contact, and we also have a confidential employee hotline,” Boots said.

“We are deeply committed to supporting our colleagues in every way that we can.”