Postal workers have spoken of the “chaos” on the Royal Mail shop floor as the service is hit by a perfect storm delaying deliveries of millions of Christmas gifts.
The pandemic means the company is having to deal with strict social distancing, swathes of self-isolating staff and an online shopping boom – at the same time as its traditional festive surge in volumes of parcels.
With more people stuck at home and forced to turn to online retailers to cater to their needs, the company has already seen a 34% increase in parcel volumes between April and August. With the company expecting its busiest Christmas on record, the entire system is bracing itself for what could prove to be an unprecedented challenge.
HuffPost UK spoke to workers on the frontline, who revealed that despite the Royal Mail taking on 33,000 temporary workers – double their usual number over Christmas – some fear it will be impossible to make all their deliveries in time for December 25.
Even with the extra help, the company has urged customers to “shop early, send early for Christmas” in order to avoid the rush in the final run-up to December 25.
One worker from the Fishponds delivery centre in Bristol said: “It’s chaos, to be honest with you.”
He said the increased workload was “manageable in the summer period” but has become “impossible at Christmas when the volumes go through the ceiling”.
The surge in covid cases has also had an impact. “The pandemic has got worse in the winter so we’ve got more staff being off – isolation, some cases in the office too. It means this waterfall doesn’t stop, and it gets loaded on top and loaded on top and loaded on top.”
He explains that workers are falling over bags because there’s so much post: “We just can’t handle the volume. In normal times, we would clear the office on a daily basis. It’s been a challenging time outside of Christmas to do that, because we have not had people able to come into work because they have been vulnerable and isolating. So we’ve been short-staffed.”
Other factors at play include social distancing ending van sharing. “So we’ve had to use a lot of hire vans to do single van duties - and even with that we’ve had a shortfall of vans.”
He says the workload can be overwhelming. “We’re coming in and given our duties and having a ‘holy shit!’ moment. How am I going to get this done? What am I going to do with this?
“And you speak to the manager and they’ll say just get out the tracked parcels. If you’re doing that on a daily basis, everything else builds up and you don’t get the opportunity to get that cleared.”
He points out overtime is “through the roof”. “Posties are doing all they can. Some people are talking 30-40 hours a week of overtime if they can get it. And people are working Sundays – which doesn’t normally happen even at Christmas – because people feel obligated to the customer.
“Some people are very, very stressed out. They feel like they’re letting down the customer massively – which we are – and some people take it to heart. Some people have come in in the morning and looked at their frame and just walked out and had to take a day off.”
A couple more cases of covid will be the “straw that breaks the camel’s back”. “I’m not sure how successful we’re going to be in getting it cleared before Christmas,” he says.
Luke Elgar, who works at the Southend sorting office and is a Communication Workers Union representative, says some depots are “manic” and facing “unprecedented” pressures. “A lot of the problems are caused by the Test and Trace app where you’ll get say 15 people sent home at the same time,” he says.
“That’s having a massive impact. Everyone’s working tirelessly. With the pandemic and the extra ordering for Christmas and people being sent home, it’s a recipe for a very busy and difficult period. But a lot of offices are coping well.”
As workers struggle through enormous workloads, customers and businesses who use Royal Mail have begun to raise concerns about slow deliveries – especially in the build up to Christmas.
A quick search on Twitter reveals dozens of complaints against Royal Mail, though other social media users have urged people to empathise with the pressure faced by many members of staff.
A spokesperson for Royal Mail declined to comment on the specific claims made to HuffPost UK by employees, directing us instead to a general statement issued on Friday.
They said: “Despite our best efforts, exhaustive planning and significant investment in extra resources, some customers may experience slightly longer delivery timescales than our usual service standards.”
“This is due to the exceptionally high volumes we are seeing, exacerbated by the coronavirus-related measures we have put in place in local mail centres and delivery offices.
“In such cases, we always work hard to get back to providing our usual level of service as quickly as we can.”