This is Local London, Dec. 27, 2020
Customers at Marks and Spencer in Tolworth may have spent a small fortune on their Christmas food shopping in recent days but if they need to spend a penny after a long haul around the store, they are in for a disappointment.
The Tolworth branch closed its accessible customer toilets, along with its coffee bar, during the Covid-19 crisis. Although this does comply with the terms of a 1976 Act of Parliament – which states that toilets should be provided in any shop selling food for consumption on the premise – it presents a terrible choice for many shoppers.
Customers have been told by staff they should walk across the car park and use the loos at Costa Coffee in the high street.
That may not be such a bother for some, but for those with hidden disabilities, it can provide a real challenge or emabarassment.
I spoke to one female shopper who suffers from diabetes insipidus, a rare form of the disease that often provokes an urgent need to visit the loo. She told me: ‘As a customer, I was very unhappy that there was no accessible toilet open. My condition is not visible and having to explain myself in public, where other shoppers can overhear, to get access to the facilities makes me quite uncomfortable.’
She told me that before the Covid-19 pandemic, accessible toilets were available to customers, but now, one member of staff had informed her that the store’s landlord had reduced the running water for the building, prompting the closure of the toilets, while another told her the toilet has been closed because it had to be cleaned after each use due to Covid concerns. A manager explained to her that shoppers whose disabilities meant they needed to use it would be allowed to do so – but only on request, or if carrying proof, such as a Just Can’t Wait card.
As someone with Crohn’s disease (a chronic condition of the gut), this issue is of great importance to me because I never know when I might need to use a toilet.
I contacted Sarah Hollobone, the campaigns manager of Crohn’s and Colitis UK, a charity which is operating a campaign called ‘unlocking public toilets’. She said of the CCUK campaign: ‘Making sure public lavatories stay open will not only dramatically improve the quality of life for people with Crohn’s or colitis, but also people with other conditions that require toilet access.’
Hopefully this campaign will help to draw attention to a forgotten aspect of the pandemic, and make trips to the supermarket less stressful for people with disabilities which are not so easy to see.