COVID-19 and food supply Contents
The Government’s necessary actions to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, combined with the public and industry’s own reactions to the threat, disrupted the food supply system in the UK. Our key findings are as follows:
- Increased consumer demand for food in February and March left empty shelves and put immense pressure on retailers. Once the crisis hit, Government worked well with the retailers to quickly put in place measures to respond. However, the Government does not appear to have anticipated the situation, despite the experience of other countries. Increased buying was, in our view, not because of “panic” but largely a reasonable and predictable response to the expectation that more meals would need to be eaten at home. The Government could have made more effort to provide early public reassurance about food supply and should do so in the event of further lockdowns or restrictions. In encouraging people to shop online without acknowledging the limited capacity of retailers to cater for that demand, the Government caused public frustration. There should be better communication across Government and between Government and the public about online capacity.
- The national voucher scheme for free school meals was set up at commendable speed. However, it initially relied on the larger retailers who were able to meet the technical requirements, excluding discounters and convenience stores, even when they were able to offer workable voucher schemes which would have helped more children. In doing so, the Government did not sufficiently consider the realities of where families dependent on free school meals were most likely to shop for food, and was subsequently slow to adapt. Children in poverty are particularly vulnerable to experiencing insufficient nutritious food during the school holidays, so it is important that such schemes have universal reach.
- Food insecurity, which the UN defines as a lack of physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food, is currently affecting 4.9 million adults plus 1.7 million children, and was exacerbated by the pandemic. Use of food banks in March and April effectively doubled compared to the same time last year at the same time as donations were squeezed. While the Government made £16 million available in the short-term for food redistribution, we consider that it should continue to fund FareShare’s efforts to redistribute food from the farmgate to frontline community groups, at a cost of £5 million a year. Food waste at a time of such critical need is particularly abhorrent. The Government should evaluate the impact of the £63 million provided to local authorities to assist those struggling to afford food and consider whether further support is necessary. The Government should appoint a Minister for Food Security, empowered to collect robust data on food insecurity and draw together policy across departments on food supply, nutrition and welfare. The Government should continue to measure and report levels of food insecurity across the country. The Government should also consult on whether a “right to food” should be given a legislative footing as a matter of great urgency, in anticipation of increasing challenges to the food security of the nation post-COVID-19. It should amend the Agriculture Bill so that food security assessments should take place yearly, rather than every five years. The National Food Strategy must address national and personal food security. Lessons must be learnt from the experience in all four nations on how best to avoid and respond to food insecurity. We are aware that a combination of ending furlough and a possible second wave of coronavirus may conspire to make the level and severity of food insecurity significantly higher. Therefore, the Government urgently needs a sustainable plan to mitigate the possible growth of food insecurity through a combination of financial and food supply strategies.
- The closure of foodservice and hospitality businesses was a huge shock for their food and drink suppliers. The Government could have done more to anticipate the problems that would arise. Now that the economy is reopening, the Government must ensure that foodservice and hospitality businesses that were thriving before the pandemic remain economically viable. These sectors may take over a year to recover from forced closure and further financial difficulties are likely. This will have an impact on their suppliers. The Government should monitor this situation as supply chains restart.
- Key workers in the food supply chain made efforts and sacrifices to feed the nation during the COVID-19 pandemic. We thank them unreservedly. Government guidance on measures to protect workers, such as on social distancing and the use of personal protective equipment, was not issued quickly enough. The Government should ensure that improved co-ordination mechanisms are in place between government departments, public bodies and with the devolved administrations so that, in future, guidance can be developed, cleared and issued more rapidly. The Government should gather data from industry and unions on how many workers in food processing could be disincentivised to self-isolate by their employment terms, such as the lack of statutory sick pay, and also evaluate whether migrant workers face other issues that increase the risk of outbreaks, for example language barriers.
- Future disruptions, for example because of a disorderly end to the transition period or climate change, will pose different, and potentially greater, challenges than the COVID-19 pandemic, where cross-border supply chains were largely undisrupted. The Government cannot afford to be complacent. It should provide reassurances that food supply disruptions have been factored into contingency planning for the end of the transition period. Defra should review the annual Sector Security and Resilience Plans for the food sector in light of lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic, including the extent to which consumer behaviour can disrupt supply chains. It should also be clearer about the difference between resilience and efficiency, and assess the extent to which our dependence on multi-national, just-in-time supply chains affects resilience. Given the industry’s concerns about the potential impact of a disorderly end to the Brexit transition period, this should happen as a matter of urgency.