Shoppers should be sensible when buying food and groceries, Prime Minister Boris Johnson and supermarkets have said.
Shelves have been emptied around the UK during the coronavirus outbreak, but can panic-buying be controlled and what is being done to restock shops?
What are supermarkets doing?
The major supermarkets are imposing limits on how many of each item people can buy.
- Tesco is limiting customers to three of any product, and only two of toilet roll and paracetamol
- Sainsbury’s says people can buy up to three of any grocery product and two of more popular items like toilet paper, soap and long-life milk
- Asda will let people purchase up to three of any food, toiletry or cleaning product
- Aldi is limiting customers to four of any product
- Waitrose is allowing people to buy only three of any grocery product and two packets of toilet roll
On Thursday, Sainsbury’s dedicated the first hour of opening in stores, apart from its Local shops, to elderly and vulnerable customers.
Iceland has also been opening an hour early for elderly and vulnerable people, and Tesco and Waitrose are introducing similar schemes.
Services like cafes and deli counters have been shut by Sainsbury’s, Asda and Waitrose, to allow more staff to focus on tasks like restocking shelves.
Tesco has said it will introduce distancing measures at checkouts to reduce the risk of infection.
And it is also going to introduce a special hour in its large stores on a Sunday morning for its own staff and NHS workers to shop.
Aldi is installing clear screens at all its checkouts from next week to protect staff and customers and is shortening its opening hours to close at 20:00.
Meanwhile, several food retailers are “drastically cutting” the range of products they sell. They are also telling manufacturers to stop making some products to focus on those for which there is greatest demand.
For example, one retailer, which makes 60 kinds of sausages, will only make a fraction of those.
And Morrisons have reduced their bakery lines from 17 to seven.
Are online deliveries holding up?
Online deliveries are being used by more people, but there are questions over how robust the systems are.
Ocado has taken its website offline until the weekend and has also closed its app because of heavy traffic.
Some Tesco deliveries are not arriving in their scheduled time slot and others are not being delivered at all if the driver runs out of time to reach all the addresses on the list.
Most of the major supermarkets have all their delivery slots booked up for at least the next couple of weeks.
Morrisons said it would increase the number of delivery slots by recruiting 2,500 extra pickers and drivers.
Sainsbury’s says it is going to prioritise delivery slots for elderly and vulnerable people, and said it could identify who was eligible through its customer data.
How many people are panic-buying?
Social media is full of reports of empty shop shelves, with similar scenes in countries such as Australia, the US, South Africa and Japan.
At the moment, we don’t have any official data on the scale of stockpiling in the UK.
But the main items on supermarkets’ restricted list include:
- anti-bacterial products including hand sanitiser
- toilet roll and tissues
- long-life milk
- tinned vegetables
- cleaning products
- pain relief
What is the government saying?
The government has said there is no reason for anybody to stockpile.
Speaking on Tuesday, Mr Johnson said: “We are absolutely confident our supply chains are working, and will work, and we will get “farm to fork” food supplies.
“Therefore people should have no reason to stockpile or panic-buy.”
Public Health England has said that people should plan ahead and think what they will need, if they have to self-isolate for at least seven days.
The advice is that they should ask friends or family to drop off anything they need, or order supplies online. Any deliveries should be left outside their homes.
However, the government’s powers to deal with this situation are so far untested, according to Paul Dobson, from the University of East Anglia.
But he said he expected the government to speak to supermarkets to secure a series of voluntary agreements on issues around supply, and limiting panic buying.
Supermarket delivery hours were extended earlier in March to help shops remain stocked.
The Competition and Markets Authority watchdog has warned retailers not to “exploit” fears about coronavirus by dramatically increasing the price of protective goods like hand gels and face masks.
The government could also relax competition rules to enable greater co-ordination between supermarkets.