When Bertrams and Gardners shuttered their UK warehouses as this month started it seemed liked Waterstone’s would be the only serious non-Amazon online books service out there.

Bizarrely Gardners today announced it had restarted its operation, albeit on a smaller scale than previously, and with some worrying limitations for the industry.

In a website statement Gardners said today:

As we are sure you are now aware, unfortunately Gardners have had to make the decision to temporarily suspend taking new orders for physical products in our warehouse. Our incredible workforce had been working hard to offer the same high standards as long as it could, but it was becoming increasingly difficult for us to keep our staff safe and still operate at the same levels. Staff safety has been, and remains, paramount to any decisions formed.

As promised we said we would keep you up to date on any changes, and that we were looking about what services we are able to turn back on.

1st April – we are pleased to confirm that our digital warehouse is continuing to run as normal, so you are able to order e-products (eBooks and eAudiobooks) as usual.

3rd April – We are delighted to are able to re-instate our Home Delivery service for UK customers to be able to use. We have managed to set a safe working environment for a team of staff, adhering to guidelines previously set out, and working comfortably within current government guidelines.

Home delivery orders will currently be restricted to single line orders only at this time, this ensures we can continue a safe service. For the time being it will also only cover in-stock lines. We currently have in excess of 400,000 lines in stock, so are pleased to be able to offer this service to help our customers once again during this difficult and uncertain time. 

That may sound like a lot, and given bookstores are closed it will be mainly heading to individual homes, and even then may not be able to meet demand, as Nigel Wyman admitted in today’s Guardian:

At this stage we have a very limited offer and have not opened our business up in anywhere near the capacity it was. In fact much of it is very much closed. With a cut-down service and a very small number of staff we can maintain a safe working environment that adheres to the current government guidelines regarding social distancing.

But that’s an argument that seems weaker and weaker by the hour as the UK coronavirus death count rises.

Let’s put today’s Gardners decision in the context of today’s UK coronavirus news.

On the same day Gardners restarted warehouse operations having cancelled them because of health and safety concerns, a record 684 Covid-19 deaths were recorded. The expectation it that will rise to over 1,000 a day later this month.

Earlier today the UK government warned that Brits should stay indoors, adding,

That is not a request – it is an instruction. The disease is still spreading and we absolutely cannot afford to relax the social distancing measures we have in place. We cannot relax our discipline now. If we do, people will die.

Against that stark backdrop of a government warning “people will die”, we have Gardners, Waterstones and others asking their staff to leave the safety of their homes to travel to warehouses and back, to package and send out books that in turn have to be delivered from the warehouse across the country to peoples homes by other workers that are at additional risk of being infected by the coronavirus just by being outdoors.

Important as books are for our collective well-being they could not, even in pre-digital times, be considered essential.

And in a time of unprecedented crisis when lives are being lost simply by people leaving home, when there is a perfectly adequate digital alternative that can deliver those same books to every consumer that wants them at zero risk to the wider public, it beggars belief a) that these companies are continuing to operate in this fashion and b) that the government has not yet closed this loophole in the lockdown order.