Coronavirus: UK panic-buyers urged to think of frontline workers

The UK government has joined forces with retailers to make a coordinated appeal to shoppers to stop stockpiling food and to think of others as panic-buying continues in response to the coronavirus crisis.

The environment secretary, George Eustice, who stood in for Boris Johnson on Saturday at the government’s daily briefing, said that when people took more than they needed it made things difficult for frontline workers, such as NHS staff.

He asked people to think of those finishing their late shifts and going to a supermarket only to find empty shelves.

Eustice was flanked at the briefing by Helen Dickinson, the chief executive of the British Retail Consortium, and Steven Powis, the national medical director of NHS England.

He said: “We recognise that this is a challenging time and there are many things the government is asking the nation to do differently as we work together to fight this pandemic. “Be responsible when you shop and think of others. Buying more than you need means others may be left without.”

He stressed the message that “there is enough food available” and ruled out government rationing, saying supermarket limits were already in place.

“I don’t think it’s necessary for the government to intervene further to say what an appropriate limit is.”

Dickinson said there was now £1bn worth of food in people’s houses that had not yet been used.

Powis appealed to people to consider NHS frontline staff as many had been faced with empty shelves by the time they finished their shifts.

He referred to a video of a nurse, Dawn Bilbrough, that took off on social media on Friday. She filmed herself in her car, exhausted and crying, having just come out of a supermarket where she was unable to buy any fresh fruit or vegetables.

“I’m a critical care nurse and I’ve just finished 48 hours of work and I just wanted to get some stuff in for the next 48 hours,” she said. “Those people who are just stripping the shelves of basic foods, you just need to stop it because it’s people like me that are going to be looking after you when you are at your lowest and just stop it, please.”

Powis said: “We should all be ashamed that this [the video] had to happen. It’s unacceptable.”

Asked about possible government intervention to restrict food purchases, Eustice said: “The reality is that most of the supermarkets are already, of their own accord, putting limits on certain items so I don’t think it is necessary or appropriate for the government to dictate this.”

He said people needed to “calm down” and “only buy what they need”, and that it was for retailers to agree what the appropriate limit was on goods such as toilet paper.

“All of the major retailers are working together and exercising their own judgment on where it’s appropriate to put limits – item limits – on certain issues,” he said.

“Toilet roll is one, where, for reasons that are not really known, there was a spike early on, despite the fact that toilet roll is made in this country and they are able to expand production very quickly.”

The press conference followed a meeting between Johnson and supermarket bosses about panic buying on Saturday.



There have been growing calls from MPs, academics, charities and those who work with vulnerable people to ensure food and other essentials are reaching those most in need.

This weekend, 150 cross-party MPs and peers wrote to the government asking it to “show the direction and leadership necessary” to ensure food supplies were available for all NHS, emergency and essential workers.

Charities working with more vulnerable groups told the Observer they were becoming increasingly concerned that many people were facing real food shortages because they had no access to stores, and online shopping slots were booked weeks in advance. Many of those who could access food were struggling to pay for the few things that were available because the cheaper options were often the ones that had disappeared from shelves.

The Salvation Army’s leader in the UK and Ireland, Commissioner Anthony Cotterill, said: “We urge the government to bring all the major retailers together to develop a coordinated approach. Measures are urgently needed, in both urban and rural areas, to help older people and key workers access the groceries they need to remain healthy.”

Age UK expressed similar concerns, saying it was “deeply worrying” that the problem of stockpiling was not going away despite the measures supermarkets have taken to try to address the issues, such as introducing pensioner-only hours in stores.

The stockpiling showed no sign of abating this weekend. Before 6am on Saturday, hundreds of shoppers were filmed queueing round the block at major stores, including all the way around the car park at a Tesco in New Malden, south London.

Steve Livington, 58, who lives alone in Peacehaven, West Sussex, is a wheelchair user and said he always shopped online.

“Last week I went to order my Tesco delivery and there was nothing for three weeks, and then the same for Sainsburys and similarly for Asda,” he said.

Asked what he thgouth of the government’s call for greater responsibility, he said: “Words like those I sadly feel will do little to calm the irrational fears driving most of those panic buyers. Akin to the old adage ‘show don’t tell’, what’s needed is action not words.”

Dr Alexander Trautrims, an expert in logistics and supply chains at Nottingham University Business School said: “Relaxing the restrictions on retail logistics are well overdue. Making it easier for supermarkets and the food sector to share resources and knowledge by waiving competition rules temporarily is another logical step. It is hard to believe that such measures were not part of a response plan prepared a long time ago sitting, ready to be implemented, in a government drawer.”

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