Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Politics
  2. The Staggers
26 October 2020updated 23 Jul 2021 11:05am

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. 

By Ailbhe Rea

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]

Select and enter your email address Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. A weekly newsletter helping you fit together the pieces of the global economic slowdown. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section and the NS archive, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how New Statesman Media Group may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.

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. 

Content from our partners
Are we there yet with electric cars? The EV story – with Wejo
Sherif Tawfik: The Middle East and Africa are ready to lead on the climate
How deception can become your friend

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.

Topics in this article :