Meet the posties keeping deliveries up in our time of need
It often takes a crisis for us to appreciate the worth of those we normally take for granted.
That is certainly the case for postal workers, who have suddenly found themselves thrown into the category of 'key worker'.
Today we speak to two posties, one serving the urban sprawl of the Black Country and the other the market towns of Shropshire.
Both are very aware of the importance of their role to the community, not just in delivering post but also as a point of personal contact for those who live alone.
It's usually the job of a postman to deliver the gifts, but Lee Sammons has been receiving a few presents of his own on his rounds during lockdown.
In many ways, the 50-year-old's job hasn't changed. He still hits the streets each morning delivering letters and parcels, but one thing he loves about his job has noticeably reduced – human interaction.
One of the joys of being a postie is being able to stop with a chat and a quick catch-up with the neighbours who have become such familiar faces over the years.
But lockdown has changed all that. Some are no longer coming to the door, or even accepting mail at all such are the levels of anxiety surrounding coronavirus.
So it has been especially heart-warming to find that his efforts are being appreciated.
"People are giving me chocolate bars, bottles of pop and leaving crisps on the doorstep," says Lee, who does his rounds in the Heath Town area of Wolverhampton.
"Everyone says stay safe, look after yourself.
"I had a card off one collection, and a bottle of wine. The firm works from home. I never see them, I always leave the letters in porch. A bottle of wine was left in there with a note saying 'you're a star, thank you for what you do'.
"Considering I only see them once or twice a year that was a nice touch. I got a bottle of brandy the other day from a guy who said 'I appreciate what you're doing'.
"It makes you feel that what you're doing, people appreciate it. People are expecting parcels and rely on them more than anything else.
"It does feel good when you open the door and see a card, that people have taken the time. It shows I might be out of sight but not out of mind."
Lee dismisses the suggestion that he is some kind of hero for going about his everyday work but acknowledges an element of risk comes with visiting so many properties during the current pandemic.
Another change has been the increase in parcels. Lockdown has kept people confined to their homes and resulted in a surge in online shopping.
Lockdown may have been bad for most businesses, but it's been a boon for Amazon it seems.
"Parcels have increased to ridiculous amounts," says Lee, from Wednesfield.
"People are ordering everything through Amazon, even basic items. The parcels have shot up, it's like Christmas every day."
Postal workers have had to keep going during the lockdown to ensure letters and parcels are delivered, but that has not been possible for everybody.
Lee said: "A few people had cancer or low immune systems so they had to leave. One chap, his missus suffers with asthma so he had to go off as well. They are all stuck at home with no choice in the matter."
The lockdown means Lee sees fewer people on his rounds and there is less interaction.
"If I have a parcel I knock the door and when they answer I step back. We're not allowed to give them the PDA to sign so we have to do it ourselves so we are not coming into contact with people. It's the same with shops.
"On the round I know everybody. Unless I step back I can't really have a conversation with people. You say hello and that's it.
"Some people don't even answer the door and others have put Covid notices up so we end up bringing parcels back because some people won't open the door.
The lack of people outdoors has brought some benefits for the postie however.
"Traffic has been down and the number of pedestrians have been down. I haven't had to dodge many people."
Across in Shropshire, Chris Holgate is determined to brighten the day for his customers, raising money for a good cause along the way.
He took on the task of picking out a different fancy outfit every day, and all for a good cause.
It has made him something of a celebrity, especially after his exploits were featured in the Star.
Chris is raising money for Hope House Children’s Hospice in Morda, near Oswestry.
He first dressed as part of a national fancy dress day for posties, joking: “I didn’t have anything to wear, so someone on my round in Knockin and Kinnerley gave me a fancy shirt."
The postie, who is based at Oswestry Royal Mail office, added: “The next day someone else gave me a different shirt, and then someone else gave me another, and it was Sarah and John Jones on my round who suggested I wear them to raise money for Hope House.”
Donations started to arrive on the Hope House website marked ‘sponsorship for Postie Chris’, and then someone dared Chris to wear a dress.
“I said if we got to £500 I would, never thinking we’d hit the target," Chris said.
"Then someone else mentioned a blonde wig so I said I’d do that for £1,000.
“Last time I looked the total was standing at just short of £2,500, and a local business has said they will add £500 too, so that is great.
“Everyone wants to see me make a fool of myself, but I really don’t mind as it is for such an amazing cause and, in these difficult times, it’s nice to be able to brighten people’s days with a bit of fun."
“Usually when I deliver the post everyone is in their pyjamas and dressing gowns, but I’ve told them on Thursday I want to see them in their glad rags to match my dress."
To sponsor Chris visit hopehouse.org.uk/donate and mark your donation Postie Chris.
Staying open by adapting and trusting customers
Most post offices have remained open for business during the coronavirus pandemic – but customers have had to get used to some changes in the way they operate.
Customers in Dudley town centre have been asked to wear a mask when going into the post office, and there are restrictions on the numbers allowed in.
Sub Postmaster of the High Street branch, Tahir Aurangzeb, said he was pleased to be able to provide a valuable service in a time of need and customers had generally respected and been understanding of the enforced measures.
He said: “We’re following very strict guidelines to ensure we’re safe - only two customers can come into the post office at one time.
“We’ve got hand sanitiser on the counter, provided by the Post Office, and we have a sign saying ‘please wear a mask’ when you come in, which some of them do but obviously others do not.
“The queue is outside on the road – we don’t have the queue in the shop.
“And the majority of people understand why we’re having to do this. But you get some people coming in to complain about it.
“The other problem is we only operate on the secure counters, ones with the protective shields up, to ensure our staff are safe. So we only have two counters with the protection and the other two are open, so we’re down to two – hence why there are queues.
“It’s a big office and I run three or four post offices and Dudley, I have to say, is one of the best ones.”
Mr Aurangzeb said there had been a decrease, rather than an increase, in the number of parcels at the branch.
That is a reflection on the trend in post both nationally and internationally as people change the way they communicate.
“There’s been a decrease, most definitely, because the Royal Mail is operating a skeleton staff at the minute and there’s been a drop in international mail,” he said. “People think it might be lost or they’re worried about sending it. But country-wide it’s about the same.”
Parcel business remains on the up as letters drop off
Lockdown has been useful to the Royal Mail in that it has reminded us all of the importance of our post.
Almost half of people have been receiving more parcel deliveries since lockdown measures began, research suggests.
Most of 2,000 adults surveyed by the Royal Mail said they believed the current level of online shopping would continue or even increase after the crisis eases.
More than one in four of those questioned expected to spend more money online once measures are lifted.
Shane O’Riordain, MD of marketing, regulation and corporate affairs at Royal Mail, commented: “Keeping the nation connected in these unprecedented times is of vital importance to us. It is perhaps unsurprising that for many customers, receiving an item that they have ordered online from our postmen and postwomen can really brighten up their day in such challenging times.”
The crisis has certainly put pressure on the service, but while other sectors of the economy are struggling it looks to emerge relatively unscathed.
The Royal Mail Group share price has staged a recovery of sorts over recent weeks, as the organisation has continued to work relatively normally throughout the Covid-19 crisis, albeit on the back of some modified working practices to ensure employee safety.
At the end of March and early April it had dropped to 119p but has since recovered to above 170p.
Letters have been an area of steady decline thanks to online communication, but parcels are a different story.
Royal Mail has continued to capitalise on parcel deliveries. Around 1,400 parcel post-boxes have been introduced, allowing sellers to post pre-paid parcels – the first major change of the use of post-boxes since their introduction 160 years ago.
While the break in Saturday delivery for letters is implemented, the parcel operation will continue as normal. Parcels, including Tracked, Special Delivery and non-account services, will not be impacted and posties will pick up from branches and boxes as normal.