Let’s celebrate delivery staf f who go the extra mile for vulnerable customers, writes Sophie Morris


“I’m just doing what anyone else should do, and looking out for others in life,” Dean Chiles told me. Chiles, 26, is a Sainsbury’s delivery driver who arrived on my doorstep looking friendly but a little flustered as the petrol and delivery crises joined forces late last month. He had just come from a neighbour of mine, a woman in her nineties who orders ready meals to feed herself each week, and he had only been able to give her two of eight.

She had told him that she can’t shop for herself and the one daughter who lives fairly nearby is away. She wouldn’t have anything to eat.

Chiles (inset) said he was going to check back at the store after his shift to see if any ready meals had come in. In the meantime I went to see if my neighbour was OK. Gladys was fine, it turned out, but at 93, partially blind and unsteady on her feet, she can’t pop to the corner shop. She has handwritten instructions for making her online order which she taps out carefully with one finger, knowing the other fingers are wont to wander and might mess up her careful work if they get too close to the screen.

Chiles finished his shift, went back to the store - Thanet Westwood Cross in east Kent - and managed to find the meals Gladys had ordered, which he then took to her along with some flowers. “She’s over the Moon,” he told me via WhatsApp. “There’s got to be something positive in life. It’s good to do something so small that makes a big difference.”

My cynical journalist bones were warmed right through by Chiles’s kindness. I told everyone I saw and it put smiles on their faces.

“Any of us can find ourselves out of supplies at the moment but, as we learned at the beginning of the pandemic, it’s that much harder to cope with if you’re an older person, especially if you are isolated and alone,” says Caroline Abrahams, Age UK’s charity director. “That’s why we need to be available to the older people in our lives and prepared to help them.”

Like many others, I have come to appreciate delivery drivers far more over the past 18 months. (Hello to my Hermes driver, and the two Yordans - you’re all great!) Cameraman Paul Lang went further, deciding to get behind the wheel himself when Covid-19 struck and film sets shut down. As a £600-a-day cameraman he had lived with a tribe in the Amazon and toured Balmoral with Prince Charles. In 2020, aged 53, he found himself getting lost on London’s North Circular for £10.66 an hour.

Lang persisted, happy to confront the highs and lows of the job for the perk of gainful employment. One old lady asked him to take a moment’s rest on a scorching July evening and played him some beautiful piano music. But on another delivery, when he had 12 trays packed with bottles of water to carry to a fourth floor flat, the strong-looking man who ordered them didn’t offer to help, he says.

At times, the work calls for the bedside manner we expect of care professionals; one day Lang delivered to a woman who had just heard from the hospital that her husband was dying, but she couldn’t go to visit him.

Filming is back on, but Lang is still driving and has written an e-book chronicling his experiences, From Hollywood to Cricklewood: Delivering During a Pandemic, with all proceeds going to St Luke’s Hospice in Plymouth.

“The natural human instinct when you see someone in distress is to comfort them,” he writes.

People were alone with their grief and heartbreak without the simple gesture of human touch to comfort them.”

When I catch up with Chiles a few weeks later, he is having time off after what he says was probably his worst week in a year of driving for Sainsbury’s, because of abusive customers.

He says he generally enjoys his job, and is working towards his lorry licence and aspires to drive articulated vehicles. But most nights someone will swear at him for being a few minutes late, even if he’s navigating country lanes in a storm.

“I don’t think people understand what’s involved,” he says. “The pickers start at 2am. Someone has to load it all, which isn’t easy. Then we have seven or eight minutes to deliver it to each customer.”

That doesn’t leave much time to wonder whether that lonely or older customer is OK. And yet I can get a next day delivery for £1 if I choose the four-hour “saver” slot. Perhaps something in the business of home delivery is not adding up.

How to help
Looking out for elderly neighbours

Age UK advises on ways to look out for the welfare of elderly friends, relatives and neighbours.

Lend a hand. Ask if people have everything they need. Offer to pick up food shopping (inset) or medicines for an older neighbour or relative who might not be able to or is too worried to go to the shops. Please respect continuing Covid-19 guidance if you do this.

Make sure they can get about safely both inside and out When it’s wet and slippery outside it’s easier to slip and fall. Helping to keep paths and driveways clear of sodden leaves, and salting steps and slopes if it’s icy, could make a big difference.

Keep in touch. Darker nights and miserable weather can make it harder for older people to get out, leaving them feeling lonely and a bit down. Contact older relatives and friends for a friendly chat. If feasible, set up a rota with other family and friends to make sure someone is regularly calling to check they are OK.

If they are feeling low, encourage them to reach out Listen to a person’s worries - it can really help. If they are very low the NHS is there to help via their GP or 111.

Share these numbers For practical information and advice, Age UK Advice: 0800 169 65 65. For a cheerful chat, day or night, The Silver Line: 0800 470 80 90. The Age UK helpline is open every day of the year from 8am to 7pm on 0800 678 1602 for anyone worried about themselves or another person.

Encourage them to have their jabs Having the flu vaccine - as well as the Covid-19 booster - is more important than ever this year.

Encourage them to keep moving and stay active Not only will it keep them fit and help protect them from the risk of falls, it will also generate heat to help ward off the cold.