British supermarkets have drawn up “feed the nation” contingency plans that would help the country cope with any panic-buying brought on by a sudden escalation of the coronavirus outbreak.
Under the plans, supermarkets would work with suppliers to scale back the variety of foods and groceries available, and instead focus on maintaining supplies of staple products.
Details of the strategy in place to ensure uninterrupted food supplies came as Boris Johnson is set to unveil “battle plans” today for tackling a potential outbreak, expected to include steps to limit the spread within crowds and to older, more vulnerable people.
“The most important thing now is that we prepare against a possible very significant expansion of coronavirus in the UK population and that is clearly on the cards,” the prime minister told the BBC on Monday. Matthew Hancock, the health secretary, said that Britain may follow the lead of “European countries at more advanced stages of an outbreak,” adding: “All options are on the table.”
Three new cases of coronavirus were confirmed in the UK on Monday, including a music teacher, bringing the total number to 39.
Next week’s budget will be redrawn to focus on shoring up the economy against the impact of coronavirus, the Treasury confirmed.
British Airways and Ryanair cancelled hundreds of flights between Heathrow and parts of Italy, France, Austria, Belgium, Germany, Ireland and Switzerland as well as New York’s JFK airport.
The Scottish government said up to 250,000 Scots could be hospitalised under a worst-case scenario.
The level of risk of contracting coronavirus within Europe was raised to “moderate to high” as deaths in Italy jumped from 18 to 52 and the outbreak reached more than 60 countries worldwide.
Further details emerged of emergency legislation the government intends to introduce, including plans to empower it to curtail public events and draw up no-go areas.
The supermarket contingency plans were detailed by a City analyst, Bruno Monteyne, of investment firm Alliance Bernstein. Monteyne was previously a supply chain director at Tesco.
Monteyne said a major outbreak of the virus could result in “panic buying, empty shelves and food riots.” However, he added that retailers have “ready-made plans” to deal with disruption and move to “feed-the-nation” status.
“Yes, it will be chaotic (and expect pictures of empty shelves),” he wrote in a note to investors, “but the industry will reduce complexity to keep the country fed.” Monteyne’s note said Tesco, the UK’s largest supermarket chain, has practised “multiday simulation” exercises, including mocked-up news coverage, with different teams preparing responses to a flu pandemic. Tesco confirmed it carried out such preparations and said they were part of being a “responsible retailer.”
Monteyne said supermarkets and their suppliers would work together to agree “a major reduction in ranges” so that suppliers can run their plants more efficiently. He added the big grocers were likely “to be drawing up lists right now of which products will be prioritised”.
He said he did not expect prices to rise because “food retailers cannot be seen to be profiteering at a moment of crisis”. However, he warned the disruption could cost the sector £1.2bn in lost profits.
Monteyne added that in the event of acute food shortages he expected the army to be called in “to protect depots, food trucks and stores” and that all grocers and suppliers would start working together.
What is Covid-19 – the illness that started in Wuhan?
It is caused by a member of the coronavirus family that has never been encountered before. Like other coronaviruses, it has come from animals. Many of those initially infected either worked or frequently shopped in the Huanan seafood wholesale market in the centre of the Chinese city.
Have there been other coronaviruses?
Severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) and Middle Eastern respiratory syndrome (Mers) are both caused by coronaviruses that came from animals. In 2002, Sars spread virtually unchecked to 37 countries, causing global panic, infecting more than 8,000 people and killing more than 750. Mers appears to be less easily passed from human to human, but has greater lethality, killing 35% of about 2,500 people who have been infected.
What are the symptoms caused by the new coronavirus?
The virus can cause pneumonia. Those who have fallen ill are reported to suffer coughs, fever and breathing difficulties. In severe cases there can be organ failure. As this is viral pneumonia, antibiotics are of no use. The antiviral drugs we have against flu will not work. Recovery depends on the strength of the immune system. Many of those who have died were already in poor health.
Should I go to the doctor if I have a cough?
UK Chief Medical Officers are advising anyone who has travelled to the UK from mainland China, Thailand, Japan, Republic of Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia or Macau in the last 14 days and who is experiencing a cough or fever or shortness of breath to stay indoors and call NHS 111, even if symptoms are mild.
Is the virus being transmitted from one person to another?
China’s national health commission has confirmed human-to-human transmission, and there have been such transmissions elsewhere.
How many people have been affected?
As of 2 March, the outbreak has affected an estimated 87,000 people globally. In mainland China, of the 80,026 confirmed cases, 44,462 (56%) have recovered and 2,912 (or 3.6%) have died.
The coronavirus has spread to at least other 30 other countries. The most badly affected include Japan, with 850 cases, including 691 from a cruise ship docked in Yokohama, and four deaths. Italy has recorded at least 1,100 cases and 29 deaths, while South Korea has recorded more than 4,212 cases and 22 deaths. There have also been deaths in Hong Kong, Taiwan, France, the US and the Philippines.
There have been 36 recorded cases and no fatalities to date in the UK.
Why is this worse than normal influenza, and how worried are the experts?
We don’t yet know how dangerous the new coronavirus is, and we won’t know until more data comes in. The mortality rate is around 2% at the centre of the outbreak, Hubei province, and less than that elsewhere. For comparison, seasonal flu typically has a mortality rate below 1% and is thought to cause about 400,000 deaths each year globally. Sars had a death rate of more than 10%.
Another key unknown is how contagious the coronavirus is. A crucial difference is that unlike flu, there is no vaccine for the new coronavirus, which means it is more difficult for vulnerable members of the population – elderly people or those with existing respiratory or immune problems – to protect themselves. Hand-washing and avoiding other people if you feel unwell are important. One sensible step is to get the flu vaccine, which will reduce the burden on health services if the outbreak turns into a wider epidemic.
Is the outbreak a pandemic?
A pandemic, in WHO terms, is “the worldwide spread of a disease”. Coronavirus cases have been confirmed outside China, but by no means in all 195 countries on the WHO’s list. It is also not spreading within those countries at the moment, except in a very few cases. By far the majority of cases are travellers who picked up the virus in China.
Should we panic?
No. The spread of the virus outside China is worrying but not an unexpected development. The WHO has declared the outbreak to be a public health emergency of international concern. The key issues are how transmissible this new coronavirus is between people, and what proportion become severely ill and end up in hospital. Often viruses that spread easily tend to have a milder impact. Generally, the coronavirus appears to be hitting older people hardest, with few cases in children.
Several of the big food retailers reported signs of panic buying. A senior executive at one major grocer told the Guardian it was witnessing stockpiling of bottled water, core grocery lines such as tinned food and pasta, and cleaning products.
The British online supermarket Ocado has advised customers to place orders further in advance than usual because of “exceptionally high demand”. It said: “More people than usual seem to be placing particularly large orders.”
Members of the department for environment, food and rural affairs’ Food Chain Emergency Liaison Group is expected to meet this week to discuss how to limit the impact of coronavirus.
The group links key food and drink firms and the National Farmers’ Union with government departments to deal with any potential disruption to food supplies, such as that which could have followed a no deal Brexit last year.
Defra said in a statement that the group “can be convened in the event of an emergency response situation, linking together the food industry and central government civil contingencies activity to swiftly mitigate any issues and ensure a healthy and varied supply of food”.
Consumers have also been stocking up with frozen food, according to supermarket Iceland. Managing director Nigel Broadhurst said it has had more shoppers in its stores, spending significantly more than normal. “Sales of frozen food have seen notable increases and we have noticed a trend towards customers selecting multibuy deals and larger packs.”
Waitrose, Morrisons and the Co-op convenience chain refused to comment on stockpiling, and said only that they were seeing more demand for cleaning products and hand sanitisers.
But a senior executive at one of the UK’s main supermarkets said: “All the big supermarkets have a plan B for sourcing.”
Andrew Opie, the director of food and sustainability at the British Retail Consortium, also said there had been an increase in demand for hand sanitisers and other hygiene products and that availability of products remained good.
He added:“Retailers are working closely with their suppliers and monitoring consumer behaviour to anticipate changes in future demand.”
Ian Wright, the chief executive of the Food and Drink Federation, said his organisation was “in regular dialogue with the government and its agencies on how the food and drink industry should react to the spread of Covid-19.
“At this stage, supply chains have experienced disruption but there is no evidence of significant disruption to food supplies. UK food and drink manufacturers have robust procedures in place.”