COVID-19 and food supply Contents

1Shops and supermarkets

Significantly increased demand

5.The impacts of COVID-19 on food first became visible through increased consumer demand in shops and supermarkets. In China, there was an increase in retail sales as people stocked up on the necessities.11 Many European countries also experienced “panic buying” caused by fears of food shortages.12 When we asked whether the UK Government should have anticipated the increased consumer demand, Andrew Opie, Director of Food and Sustainability at the British Retail Consortium (BRC), stated that “from mid-February onwards, everybody knew that excessive buying was on the way” and that:

in some ways, it was entirely predictable, because many of our members run stores in Europe, which saw the impact of COVID before it reached the UK. We were feeding that back to Government.13

Andrew Opie explained that in the UK, “the first excessive buying started towards the end of February and went right through to the third week of March”.14 Figures from market analyst Kantar, published on 31 March, showed that “year-on-year supermarket sales grew by the fastest rate in over a decade during the past 12 weeks–increasing by 7.6%” and that March saw “the biggest month of grocery sales ever recorded” amounting to £10.8 billion.15 Kantar stated that this was “even higher than levels seen at Christmas, the busiest time of year under normal circumstances”.16 The BRC stated that for Christmas, “retailers have several months to prepare which they didn’t have in this case”.17 On 23 March, Helen Dickinson, Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the BRC, stated that there was “a billion pounds more food in people’s houses than there was three weeks ago”.18

6.As a result, many consumers encountered empty supermarket shelves.19 Our survey (held in April) showed that most respondents had found it difficult to get the food they needed in shops and supermarkets, particularly dry and tinned goods.20 Terms such as “panic buying” and “stockpiling” were frequently used to refer to the situation.21

7.Ian Wright, CEO of the Food and Drink Federation (FDF), explained that consumers were not just stockpiling:

Before the lockdown, let us say on 28 February, 30%, give or take, of food was consumed in what we call “out of home”; that is contract catering, pubs, clubs and restaurants or food to go, like sandwich shops […]. By and large, in those two weeks before the lockdown, the British shopper decided that they were going to eat everything at home, and that 30% walked across the road to retail.22

He stated that:

The consequence […] is that the fantastic just-in-time processes that got shelves absolutely stocked pretty much every time rely on using immediate previous behaviour as a predictor of the next behaviour. That is fine unless the next behaviour is completely different, which it was, so the algorithms were completely banjaxed. As a consequence of that, shelves were empty and the distribution system, more importantly, that got stuff from the manufacturers to the distribution centres and to the shops began to be incapable of dealing with the demand.23

8.On 6 March, the i newspaper reported that the big four supermarkets had warned that “Government has been too slow to react to fears about food shortages due to the coronavirus outbreak sparking panic buying across the UK”.24 Industry sources reported that despite a public claim from the Health Secretary on 5 March that the Government had been working with supermarkets, there had been no such interaction until 6 March, when the industry participated in a call with the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.25 Defra confirmed that “the first Food Chain Emergency Liaison Group (FCELG) meeting took place on 6 March and the group has been meeting weekly since then”.26 Defra explained that “key issues identified by industry in FCELG meetings are fed into the relevant teams or departments to inform policy in these areas”.27 The Secretary of State clarified that he had had conversations “with officials in Number 10 around about 7 March on this issue” and with the Health Secretary “on around 6 March, again about the threat of panic-buying”.28 He also stated that “a supermarket chief executive will not necessarily know what every member of his management team and others in his organisation are doing” and that some of those people “would have been talking to officials within DEFRA about these matters”.29 In late March, he told us that officials had been working with retailers from early February.30

Public communication

9.Increased consumer demand led to supermarkets publishing a plea to consumers on 15 March, providing reassurance that “there is enough for everyone if we all work together” and asking for “everyone to be considerate in the way they shop”.31 On 21 March, the issue of increased consumer demand for food was actively addressed in the Government’s daily press conference, when the Secretary of State asked the public to:

Be responsible when you shop and think of others. Buying more than you need means others may be left without and it is making life more difficult for those frontline workers such as our doctors and nurses and NHS support staff […] there is more than enough food to go round […] there is no shortage of food available.32

At the same press conference, Stephen Powis, NHS England National Medical Director, stated that “it is critical that by not stockpiling, by not selfishly shopping, by leaving these supplies for others too, that our health workers are able to get access to what they need” and that “frankly we should all be ashamed”.33

10.The Mental Health Foundation suggested that rather than being “selfish or nasty”, panic buying was “mostly the result of powerful psychological urges, and is a normal response to our distress”.34 It stated that factors contributing to panic buying included: the need to regain some control during a situation that can feel “frightening and unbearable”; a “herd mentality, with everyone feeling pressure to do what other people are doing”; and “loss aversion–or our general tendency, as humans, to care more about avoiding losses than we do about acquiring equivalent gains”.35 A respondent to our survey, who admitted that they had bought more than they normally would, explained that “whilst you try to shop responsibly, when you see items flying off the shelf, you can’t help buy additional items yourself before it runs out”.36 Another stated “I don’t think there was any helpful guidance in respect of the likely effect of the lockdown on food supplies. There was a sudden flurry of news reports about people buying loo roll and pasta like it was going out of fashion, which scared us”.37 Policy academics Professor Erik Millstone, Professor Terry Marsden and Professor Tim Lang, jointly criticised the Government:

What did HM Government expect when it effectively told the public that they could not consume food out of the home as normal? And then, when the public switched to buying food from supermarkets, and clearing shelves, consumers were castigated for over-purchasing and panic-buying, and it was left to retailers to take the lead and speak directly to consumers. HMG actively contributed to this situation. It showed a failure to understand market dynamics or consumer psychology.38

James Lowman, Chief Executive of the Association of Convenience Stores (ACS), stated that, with hindsight, he would have asked the Government to “think about common messaging”.39 He explained that:

around 20 March, the Government started to develop plans for common messaging, to only buy what you really need. We were all braced to introduce that in stores. There is an advantage to having common messaging because consumers get used to seeing that same messaging. That did not get into stores until a week or 10 days later, by which time everyone had developed their own messaging anyway. It is certainly better in that situation to have a quick response.40

In contrast, Andrew Opie, BRC, considered that “it is right that the industry does that [messaging], rather than Government” because he was “not sure the Government saying ‘don’t panic’ is always the best message”.41 Payhembury Provisions, a community-run shop, suggested that rather than limiting messages to “don’t panic buy and then there will be enough for everyone”, the Government should also have communicated “its intention to urgently sort the supply chain problems”.42

11.The Secretary of State concurred that “all the evidence is that, if you want to avoid spurring panic-buying, the best thing is for it not to be talked about or covered at all, as far as is possible”.43 He told us that he had therefore made a judgement that the industry was best placed to comment and that, with regards to his public statement on 21 March, there was a “time and a place for Government to intervene, and we did it at the right point, when we had nothing left to lose”.44 He considered that Government intervention came at “exactly the right time”.45

Government support to retailers

12.In order to help manage increased consumer demand, the Government announced on 19 March that it would temporarily relax elements of competition law to allow supermarkets to work together.46 This allowed “retailers to share data with each other on stock levels, cooperate to keep shops open, or share distribution depots and delivery vans” and “ to pool staff with one another to help meet demand”.47 The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) explained that “competition law prohibits certain types of co-operation and information-sharing between businesses in order to safeguard competition and protect consumers”.48 It explained that the Government had “legislated (via statutory instrument) to exclude certain agreements between firms in the grocery and dairy sectors from competition law” and that the CMA had “provided advice and assistance to government on these so-called ‘exclusion orders’, ensuring the risks of anti-competitive behaviour and consumer harm are kept to a minimum”.49 In addition, the Government “temporarily relaxed rules around drivers’ hours, so retailers can deliver more food to stores, and [waived] the 5p plastic bag charge for online purchases to speed up deliveries”.50

13.James Bielby, Chief Executive of the Federation of Wholesale Distributors (FWD), explained that:

The competition law waivers were to allow supply to meet vulnerable people—the shielding community—to ensure that they had access to product, and to allow [retailers] to talk to Government and share information about people in order to prioritise certain delivery slots for people at home shielding. […] It is much more around them collectively talking to each other to ensure the people who need food have access to food.51

While the BRC welcomed the decision to relax competition law, the ACS was concerned that it could have “negative consequences for less dominant elements of the food supply chain, including convenience stores and the wholesalers that supply them”.52 The ACS also had concerns over “the lack of transparency in developing the Statutory Instrument” and “the small number of stakeholders that […] Defra and Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy sought to consult with”.53 These were shared by the FWD.54

14.The CMA explained that “the exclusion orders themselves stipulate that the Secretary of State must publish a notice once there is no longer a significant disruption or threat to disruption to the supply of the relevant goods or services and the exclusion is therefore no longer justified”.55 The CMA further suggested that “a difficulty for government will be deciding when the supply disruption the exclusion orders are meant to address is over” as “the COVID-19 pandemic is likely to continue to affect the lives of UK consumers and businesses for many months to come”.56 Although “Government may also encounter resistance from the beneficiaries of the exclusion orders against their termination”, the CMA considered that “from a competition perspective, the longer such arrangements are in place, the greater the risk of consumer detriment occurring”.57

15.We consider that, once the crisis hit, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) worked well with industry to put in place measures to help retailers to deal with significantly increased consumer demand.

16.However, it appears that the Government had not anticipated how much retail demand would increase and that it would have a disruptive effect on food supply to consumers via retailers. Given that empty shelves were already being reported in other countries that were ahead of the UK with regards to COVID-19 cases and responsive measures, this is surprising and disappointing.

17.It is entirely reasonable and predictable that consumers would want to buy more food in anticipation of a lockdown, the need to self-isolate if they developed COVID-19 symptoms, or school closures and changed working patterns resulting in more meals eaten at home. The Government and retailers, including convenience stores, failed to develop an effective joint communications plan in anticipation of increased consumer demand. At a time when the public was looking to the Government for advice on how to live safely, we consider that the Government could have made more effort to provide reassurances. In the event of further lockdowns or restrictions, the Government should ensure that more emphasis is placed on reassuring the public that there will be enough food and essential supplies for everyone.

18.We heard concerns about the relaxation of competition law on smaller retailers and their suppliers. Smaller retailers played a vital role in providing food to people during the pandemic, particularly where they were unable to get to supermarkets, and we suggest that in future, the Government must ensure that small retailers are well supplied and supported. While the relaxation has helped retailers manage a period of unprecedented demand, the longer the exclusion orders are in place, the greater the risk of detriment to consumers. The Government should clarify the conditions to be met in order for the exclusion orders relating to the COVID-19 pandemic to expire. The Government and Competition and Markets Authority should review whether the relaxation of competition law has been detrimental to consumers and suppliers to large retailers during the pandemic.

Online delivery

19.Prior to the pandemic, “online capacity was about 7.5% of all sales”, and in 2019, the eight retailers “selling online delivered groceries [were] AmazonFresh, Asda, Iceland, Morrisons, Ocado, Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Waitrose”.58

20.Andrew Opie, BRC, stated that online grocery shopping had seen “phenomenal growth” during the pandemic that meant that “we have probably seen five or six years’ growth of online in about seven or eight weeks”.59 Online capacity is now estimated to account for around 11.5 to 13 per cent of the groceries market.60

21.The Grocer explained that “there are lots of reasons why people are going online for food”, and that:

government advice to avoid gatherings in public places had already put many people off visiting overcrowded supermarkets; warnings against the use of public transport made getting to stores trickier; and guidance to work from home where possible removed shopping trips from weekly routines.61

In addition, Government announcements actively encouraged shopping online, for example on 23 March, the Prime Minister stated that people should “use food delivery services where you can”, in order to avoid going out shopping.62

22.Many larger retailers increased their capacity for online shopping, for example, Tesco “increased the number of online orders fulfilled each week from 590,000 in the first week of the crisis, to more than 1.4 million”, Asda increased “from 450,000 slots to around 725,000” and Sainsbury’s “doubled capacity to 600,000 online slots per week”.63 Convenience stores also made efforts, with more than 46,000 “launching home delivery services and ramping up existing ones”.64 According to the ACS, around 12 per cent already offered home delivery and 26 per cent provided click and collect services.65

23.Despite these efforts, many people struggled to access food via online orders; our survey showed that more than half of respondents had ordered food to be delivered, but 83 per cent had found it difficult to get what they needed.66 Money Mail highlighted the experiences of its readers who described the situation as a “fiasco” and “appalling “.67 A respondent to our survey stated that “online shopping is like a lucky dip”.68 In addition, some consumers found that they were unable to get the food they needed, either because of minimum order amounts or product limits.69

24.In addition to meeting demand from existing and new consumers, retailers offered priority delivery to the approximately 2 million Clinically Extremely Vulnerable (CEV) people who had been advised by the Government to shield and needed support with food.70 Our survey found that of the people who had tried to register with a supermarket and/or online grocery service as a vulnerable customer, 70 per cent rated the efforts made by supermarkets and online grocery services as somewhat or very unhelpful.71 However, Macmillan Cancer Trust stated that even people with cancer who are classed as CEV were “finding it difficult to get priority delivery slots” which were “being made available, but just not in the quantity required for those vulnerable groups”.72 For many disabled people, Action for ME73 noted that online shopping was “a way of accessing food and essential supplies”.74 The pandemic meant that they were “having to compete with able-bodied individuals for deliveries” and that there had “been no attempt to safeguard those who are housebound with a disability but are not clinically vulnerable to Covid-19”.75 Disabled People Against Cuts stated that “there are 14 million disabled people in the UK qualifying for reasonable adjustments of one sort or another under the Equality Act 2010, but the register will only assist an anticipated 10% of disabled people”.76 It added that disabled people were statistically less likely to have online access, and that:

non-priority delivery slots apparently become available late at night with reports of people staying up all night on consecutive nights in order to obtain one. For people with certain impairments, particularly those with energy limiting illnesses, this is not possible.77

25.The BRC explained that “clarifying who online retailers should be prioritising and the data needed to identify them has been a difficult process” and that “action would have been quicker and easier to make if all 4 UK countries had been involved in the discussion and ready to make the changes to regulation and policy at the same time”.78 It also stated that “retailers knew there was sufficient food in the supply chain for everyone but recognised getting that to the homes of the millions of vulnerable consumers who would need to self-isolate was the challenge and raised this early in the incident with Government”.79 The BRC considered that “there was a misconception within Government of the capacity of online delivery to meet the requirements of those self-isolating” and that its “messaging from the start was that we needed community solutions to supplement an increased online capacity; neighbours, relatives and volunteers to shop on behalf of vulnerable consumers and deliver to their homes”.80 However, Andrew Opie, BRC, commended Defra “for its speed of reaction to the requests we made in early March for relaxation of regulation” such as “relaxing drivers’ hours for truck drivers and online deliveries, and relaxing curfew delivery hours, which allowed supermarkets to make deliveries right through the day, 24/7”.81

26.The Secretary of State told us that he had asked retailers about their capacity to increase online delivery and had been told that “the maximum that they could go to within a realistic short-to-medium-term timeframe was probably about 12%”.82 He added that he had explained this to the Health Secretary and “that is why we also, very quickly, started to move to different arrangements for food parcels done through a commercial contractor for the shielded cohort, and also started work on volunteers”.83 Food parcels are explored in the next Chapter.

27.The spike in demand for online grocery shopping and home delivery was an obvious consequence of measures designed to stop the spread of COVID-19. We commend the efforts of supermarkets and convenience stores in ramping up their capacity to offer online shopping throughout the pandemic. The Government’s temporary relaxation of rules around drivers’ hours also helped.

28.There is no reason why the Government should have had any misconceptions about the capacity of online retailers to cater for the increased demand from consumers shopping from home. Online accounted for a small proportion of the market before the pandemic and retailers were advising Defra on their capacity to increase the service. In encouraging people to shop online without acknowledging the limited capacity of retailers to cater for that demand, the Government set the scene for public frustration and for blame to be placed at the door of the retailers. We are concerned that there may have been a failure of communication between Government and the public, and across Government. The Government should clarify how it intends to manage the mismatch between demand and capacity for online food shopping in the event of a second wave of COVID-19 infections. There should be better communication across Government and between Government and the public about online capacity.

Physical access to shops

29.In order to manage consumer demand, many retailers put in place measures such as social distancing, limiting numbers in-store, screens at checkouts and reserving priority hours for vulnerable customers and key workers.84

30.We heard concerns about the unintended consequences of these measures for some people with disabilities. Parkinson’s UK stated that “many of our supporters are having problems” including “waiting in long lines to get their shopping as they cannot stand for sustained periods of time” and “quieter shopping times at the beginning of the day [before] their medication has kicked in”.85 Winvisible, a disabled women’s charity, considered that “a more accessible time [for protected hours] would be early afternoon, but as that is a peak time for the [supermarkets], we get the message that we don’t count”.86 Guide Dogs for the Blind noted that “maintaining a safe distance from other shoppers in supermarkets is difficult for blind and partially sighted people, if not impossible”, which “puts them at greater risk from coronavirus when shopping”.87 Disability Rights UK highlighted that some “people are not allowed into shops in pairs, which makes taking a PA [personal assistant] or family member for support, difficult or even impossible” and that “efforts such as one-way shopping, or having to walk the length of the store, are difficult or impossible for people with various impairments, such as mobility impairments, visual impairments, learning disabilities”.88 Limits on product purchases meant that volunteers, PAs or carers shopping for multiple clients or service users “have often been refused the option to buy in excess of any product restrictions that are in place e.g. eggs, toilet paper”.89

31.Disability Rights UK concluded that “the government and the food industry did not initially take adequate steps to support all disabled people and people with long term health conditions to access sufficient healthy food”, and that “initial efforts excluded a significant number of disabled people”.90 It stated that “the government and the supermarkets failed to realise that being at-risk includes non-medical impairments, often coupled with social circumstances”.91 Fazilet Hadi, Policy Manager, Disability Rights UK, suggested that the supermarkets should “think about their duties under the Equality Act to make reasonable adjustments for disabled people, and to work with Disability Rights UK, the Equality and Human Rights Commission, and the Business Disability Forum […] to think through what a reasonable adjustment will look like under the Equality Act”.92

32.Caroline Abrahams, Charity Director, Age UK, told us that she had “found Defra open—it certainly approached us rather than the other way around” but that “we have found the communications difficult sometimes in the sense of getting to a clear, agreed decision”.93 She added that “the time it has taken to reach decisions has been the biggest problem, particularly where money is concerned” and that “there is some confusion across Government about funding for the voluntary sector and, frankly, I am sure there is not enough to go around, full stop”.94 Fazilet Hadi, Disability Rights UK, stated that that Defra officials were “well motivated” but that:

The issue for me is that we are talking about very detailed issues such as how we can get more online shopping slots. We are not sitting down with Defra and the supermarkets and talking about a big plan that asks: “Who are the groups that are really affected and who are struggling to access food because of the coronavirus situation; what is our strategy; and what role is each of us playing?” […] we need that big thinking and planning now, because we have done the emergency stuff and have learned that all us have probably done some things wrong, and we now just need to reflect on what has happened and move forward.95

33.Andrew Opie, BRC, agreed that “there is no doubt that [social distancing] presents more difficulties for vulnerable and disabled consumers”.96 He stated that it was “ absolutely not the position” that “carers would not be allowed into stores with the customers” and that:

We are working through some of these issues. We think the steps we have put in place, particularly the training of all colleagues, to look out for not only those who might be disabled but those who have hidden disabilities, has really helped with that process. We are continuing the conversation with those groups. […] We have a lot of responsibilities. We are looking at making sure that our signage is clear and that the advice we give through our websites and customer care lines reflects the concerns of charities. We are pretty confident we have done a really good job since the social distancing came in. We are now tweaking that communication and messaging, working with those charities.97

34.Defra stated that to help “people who are not shielded but are struggling to access food”, it was “connecting those in need with local volunteers to deliver food from shops, will allow local authorities to refer food vulnerable people for prioritised supermarket delivery slots, and to signpost people to commercially available food box delivery options”.98

35.The significantly increased demand for online shopping, combined with in-store measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and limit excessive buying, have had a negative impact on people who are not shielding but struggling to access food, despite being able to afford it. We accept that some mistakes and compromises were inevitable and that retailers, on the whole, responded well to the unprecedented situation, although they will need to adjust to different needs more quickly in future. However, we urge Defra to consult with retailers and charities to ensure that reasonable adjustments are made for this group of people as the pandemic continues. Ensuring that the necessary steps to contain future pandemics or other crises do not result in disproportionate impacts on people with disabilities or other vulnerabilities should be built into the Government and industry’s emergency planning.

11 “Impact of coronavirus on global markets”, Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board, 14 February 2020

17 British Retail Consortium (COV0006) para 2.4

19 For example, “UK supermarkets appeal for calm as shelves empty”, The Guardian, 15 March 2020

20 Annex A

24 “Coronavirus in the UK: Supermarkets warn of panic buying as ministers were too slow to act on food shortages”, The i, 6 March 2020. The “big four” usually refers to Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury’s and Morrisons.

26 Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (COV00142) para 14.1

27 Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (COV00142) para 14.1

30 Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (COV0002)

34 Mental Health Foundation, ‘Beyond panic buying’, accessed 15 July 2020

35 Mental Health Foundation, ‘Beyond panic buying’, accessed 15 July 2020

36 Annex A

37 Annex A

38 Professor Erik Millstone, Professor Terry Marsden and Professor Tim Lang (COV0023)

42 Payhembury Provisions (COV0013)

47 “Supermarkets to join forces to feed the nation”, GOV.UK press release, 19 March 2020

48 Competition and Markets Authority (COV00138)

49 Competition and Markets Authority (COV00138)

50 “Supermarkets to join forces to feed the nation”, GOV.UK press release, 19 March 2020

52 “Competition laws relaxed to allow supermarkets to feed the nation”, Defra in the media blog, 20 March 2020; Association of Convenience Stores (COV0137) para 15

53 Association of Convenience Stores (COV0137) para 16

54 Federation of Wholesale Distributors (COV0072) paras 17–18

55 Competition and Markets Authority (COV00138)

56 Competition and Markets Authority (COV00138)

57 Competition and Markets Authority (COV00138)

58 Q148 [Andrew Opie]; Competition & Markets Authority, Anticipated merger between J Sainsbury PLC and Asda Group Ltd: Final report, 25 April 2019, para 57

66 Annex A. The survey respondents were self-selecting, so these results should not be taken as an indication of the experiences of the wider population.

67 Money Mail (COV0131)

68 Annex A

69 Annex A

71 Annex A

72 Macmillan Cancer Support (COV0070)

73 Myalgic Encephalomyelitis

74 Action for M.E. (COV0024)

75 Action for M.E. (COV0024)

76 Disabled People Against Cuts (COV0031)

77 Disabled People Against Cuts (COV0031)

78 British Retail Consortium (COV0006)

79 British Retail Consortium (COV0006)

80 British Retail Consortium (COV0006) para 4.1–4.2

85 Parkinson’s UK (COV0044) para 14

86 WinVisible (COV0106)

87 Guide Dogs for the Blind (COV0054)

88 Disability Rights UK (COV0056)

89 Disability Rights UK (COV0056)

90 Disability Rights UK (COV0056)

91 Disability Rights UK (COV0056)

98 Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (COV0142) para 4.5

Published: 30 July 2020