Elmhurst Windows.

Discover how five essential North Leeds businesses have kept their doors open during lockdown to serve their community through thick and thin.

Stephan Greenwood, manager of Sainsbury’s Local Wike Ridge Lane

The lockdown has kept us busy, but we’ve been living with the virus for so long now, it’s just become a normal way of working. My colleagues are doing an amazing job here on the front line – we haven’t had any isolations. They’ve come to work, put their masks on and remained positive. I couldn’t have asked for anything more.

We recently reduced the numbers of customers in store to support new distancing guidelines. Myself and other members of management have been on the door having a bit of banter with customers just to keep spirits high. We take a common-sense approach and if we see a key worker, we’ll usher them to the front of the queue.

After the January lockdown announcement, a few people did come out and pick up more cupboard essentials and we’ve seen around 20% extra spending. But we put the message out that there is no reason to panic buy, and customers who know how we handled the situation last time have the confidence there will always be plenty available. When people are specifically asking for products like toilet rolls, we would take their names and numbers and when we got a delivery, put their name on it, and give them a ring the next day.

Our elderly customers tend to come in when we open at 7am and some of my colleagues have been helping carry their shopping home. But we’ve also had customers that don’t want to come in – so they’ve just given us a list and we’ve quickly nipped round the shop and picked their basket for them.

Through the run up to Christmas, we supported six food donation banks – from the local church to Roundhay School. We’ve been getting loads of positive comments from the local community – they’d much rather shop with us than go to the bigger supermarket in Moortown – and we’ve received a couple of nice letters from head office too which is fantastic.

Mandie Thompson and her driver collecting the meals for the Hovingham Primary School food bank.

John Redding, assistant manager at COOK Moortown frozen food chain

Since the first lockdown we have been incredibly busy – we’re one of the few businesses that have done well. Our manager Mike and I have been delivering meals and making sure that our elderly and vulnerable customers have food. We have customers that fall outside of our delivery area that we know to be vulnerable, so we’ll extend the van into that area just to make sure they aren’t having to come out and risk their lives. If our van has been full, we’ve just taken out our own cars, simply doing what is required to get meals to people.

Although a lot of our customers do like to come in and have a look around, we’re now offering an over-the-counter service, so goods are only being handled by the team. No one signed up to work in retail with a pandemic going round, so our staff that were vulnerable or feel afraid to work were given the option to withdraw on unpaid leave while those shielding were furloughed. The rest of us carried on coming in and getting on with it.

The other thing we’ve implemented as a chain is our Kindness Fund. We wanted to share our good fortune with others by giving free food away to worthy causes. We sent a mailshot out to our customers asking if they knew of any vulnerable relatives or neighbours who could do with food and we’ve also been helping Hovingham Primary in Harehills with their food bank programme. This culminated at Christmas with us providing the school with 200 four-portion meals, so that every family would get at least one special, healthy meal a week from us. It’s been really gratifying to be able to help out because we’ve been doing so well.

Vance Johnson, founder of Troy Autopoint garage services and tyre specialists

We’ve been in business for 56 years and we’re not closing our doors now. We’re here, braving the worst of it, not because we’re trying to be public spirited but because we’re here to earn a living.

We don’t make the profit that we were making, but we’re busy keeping people on the road at this difficult time. When we take customers’ cars out, we put covers on the seats and drive with the windows open. That’s to protect ourselves and customers, even when it’s freezing. And when we give customers their keys back, we give them a clean with some antiseptic. We think we do a pretty good job bearing in mind we’ve got so many jobs on the books.

All my staff constantly wear a face covering, even the ones working in the service bay. Bear in mind, we’re not like the nationals who employ young people – we employ mature, experienced experts. They all have families and they’re scared to death to get the virus. Oh heck, I’m always here – five days a week. I’m 74, but it wouldn’t be right for me to hide away at home sitting and looking at four walls while my staff are here putting themselves on the line.

It takes a certain amount of courage to come into work every day with the general public if you’re of a certain age. I think my staff are brilliant for braving it, but having said that, what’s the alternative? If you don’t come in, you don’t get paid. There are people from the local council on furlough since April on full pay. You could say I’m a bit envious of that, but that’s life isn’t it?

Ashley Cohen owner of Pharm-Assist pharmacy group

As a pharmacy we’ve been frontline NHS, staying open every day of the pandemic, including holidays. Our work over lockdown has increased with worried patients coming to see us, not just about prescriptions, but about their healthcare because GP practices are working differently.

I have a staff of 40, most of whom have children and are struggling with their work-life balance. We try to be flexible with our working hours, but around 30% are off at any one time due to illness or self-isolation. It has been a daily battle to ensure we’re running safely at minimum staffing levels – we’re not dispensing sweets, we’re dispensing medicines.

Our deliveries have gone through the roof since we went into lockdown. We have six drivers delivering 2,000 items every week, but we are not paid by the government to provide this service, so we have to rely on the goodwill of volunteers and fund it ourselves.

When you look at GP practices, they are doing a lot of things virtually, but we are one of the only healthcare access points with open doors. All of our staff are working 10 hours a day in full PPE. If you think it’s difficult wearing a mask at the supermarket, wearing masks and gloves from 8am until 6pm is extremely tough. Patients walk in with coughs, colds and high temperatures, inevitably transmitting COVID to our staff. Some of our staff have been very seriously ill or had family members in intensive care.

It’s tough out there – emotionally, physically and financially. You have this disconnect where furloughed staff are being paid to stay at home, and yet those putting their lives at risk to work under immense pressure go unrewarded. At the moment, my day starts three hours before the kids start their school and finishes three hours after they go to bed.

I’ve injected over six figures of borrowed money into my business to keep it going with the promise the chancellor will cover all COVID costs, but 10 months down the line, the only additional money I’ve received is a £300 grant to pay for Perspex screens. I’m holding out hope that our goodwill will materialise in some way, shape or form.

I would have been better off closing my doors and home schooling my kids, and as a healthcare professional, you start thinking: ‘am I a commercial or a healthcare organisation?’ Yet I still believe our main concern is to improve the health of the communities that we serve and the people that work with us.

There are national chains doing well out of this. It’s so easy to use the pharmacy with the online app, where you press a button and receive next day delivery. That’s fine when all you need is medicine, but they can’t provide advice, administer flu vaccinations or offer someone to talk to when you’re lonely. My heart won’t bleed if a big equity-backed conglomerate has to cut a few salaries in head office, but every pound put into my business is feeding our community in employment opportunities.

If people want to keep their local businesses open, whether it’s their pharmacy, optician or garage, my message to readers is: use us or lose us.

James Daly, founder of James Daly Opticians

The College of Optometrists stopped us from doing routine examinations last March and we didn’t get back to work until the middle of June. Since then, we’ve worked through the last two lockdowns with appropriate safeguards in place.

We’ve slowed down quite a bit – we’re seeing one patient every hour, which in a way is good for the patients, as they get a bit more time with us. Another silver lining for us, is the new NHS remote eyecare scheme, where people can call up with a minor eyecare problem and we can diagnose it over the phone – meaning they don’t have to come in. Historically, if a patient came in with a red eye, we had to do a full eye test, but now they’ve relaxed the regulations so we can provide basic eyecare remotely – which is definitely a progression for our industry. The scheme has helped us relieve the pressure from GP surgeries as they deal with vaccinations.

People sometimes are nervous about coming out, but we talk them through it, explaining our one-in-one-out policy. Technology has helped enormously – it would be very different had this happened 20 years ago. For instance, we’ve been able to stop doing direct ophthalmoscopies (shining the little handheld light) during the pandemic, because we have access to amazing pieces of kit, such as our 3D camera, which allows us to take socially distanced images of the back of a patient’s eye.

A lot of people are using us as their local optician because they aren’t going to town to get their eyes tested. We’ve been busy with repairs, actively prioritising keyworkers – if a consultant comes in with broken glasses, we offer urgent appointments, staying late if we have to.

But we’ve also been busy providing niche solutions to small pandemic-related problems. For example, one of the biggest problems glasses wearers suffer, is the steaming up when they wear facemasks. We’ve fixed that for many of our customers by sourcing some really good fog wipes – we’ve had 400 boxes fly off the shelves in a matter of days!