The Tesco sanitary towels row is the store’s mistake – but the Welsh government’s headache

The supermarket has bungled its implementation of the policy – but it’s the Welsh government left bearing responsibility. 

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The Welsh government has spent the morning frantically clarifying that sanitary products are essential items and should continue to be sold for the duration of the firebreak lockdown, after a woman was unable to buy period products in Tesco. The retailer claimed it was in accordance with the government’s ban on selling non-essential items during the lockdown – prompting a huge outcry online. 

The error was entirely Tesco’s: even the quickest of glances at the Welsh government’s guidance will show you that items that would normally be sold in a pharmacy are classed as essential. The area in question was closed off, not because of the guidelines, but because of a suspected burgulary in the same store, with the guidelines blamed online by a presumably junior employee tasked with sending prompt, cheerful replies to queries and complaints on Tesco’s social media accounts. (The offending reply has since been deleted.)

[See also: Will the government U-turn over free school meals?]

But the fundamental problem isn’t Tesco’s, but the Welsh government’s. It exposes the sheer silliness of a policy that is, at its core, a wild over-correction for the potentially distorting effect that closing all other shops but leaving supermarkets open might have had on business. Instead of risking the charge of unfairness of allowing supermarkets to sell books while bookshops are closed, for example, the Welsh government has opted for a wildly impractical policy of banning the sale of non-essential items in supermarkets. It hoped this would have the bonus effect of further enforcing its aim of the shortest, sharpest possible lockdown, with only the most essential activities permitted; another behavioural cue for the people of Wales. Instead, there has been a silly stream of pictures of aisles cordoned off, products covered in sheets of plastic, and the scope for cautiously strict interpretations that lead to an embarrassment like today’s.  

[See also: British devolution isn’t built for a crisis like Covid-19]

Today’s row had greater cut-through than all of the embarrassing pictures of cordoned-off aisles over the weekend, because of the particular absurdity of a supermarket continuing to sell alcohol as an essential item, but not period products. It highlights an issue with huge political salience at the moment: women’s health has been an area of medicine that is ignored and under-funded, and sanitary products are an essential item that are rarely recognised as such, and until January 2021, will still be taxed in the UK as a luxury. Only in the past few years have charities and campaigns advocated for sanitary products to be recognised as an essential need for anyone in difficulty: an item as essential as canned food in food banks and packages for refugees or people on the street. 

It may have been Tesco that disregarded sanitary products as essential goods that they should be selling during the pandemic, but it will be the Welsh government that will be blamed for allowing that to happen, with all of the political toxicity that entails.

Ailbhe Rea is political correspondent at the New Statesman

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