Business

Supermarkets reject minister’s food supply claim

Empty supermarket shelvesImage copyright AFP

UK supermarkets have rejected claims from Health Secretary Matt Hancock that they have had discussions with the government about getting food to people who have been forced to self-isolate.

He told BBC Question Time on Thursday: “We are working with the supermarkets.”

But supermarket sources said that while they have had general talks about security of food supplies, they have not discussed getting food to homes.

One executive said he was “baffled” by the suggestions.

The Prime Minister’s spokesman said officials at the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) had been regularly meeting with representatives of the industry bodies, who in turn represent the country’s leading supermarkets.

On Thursday, Mr Hancock told Question Time: “Crucially, we are working with the supermarkets to make sure that, if people are self-isolating, then we will be able to get the food and supplies that they need.”

But one executive told the BBC: “Matt Hancock has totally made up what he said about working with supermarkets. We haven’t heard anything from government directly.”

He added that sales of cupboard basics like pasta and tinned goods have “gone through the roof”.

While the supermarket was largely keeping up with demand, teams are working “round the clock” to keep shelves stocked.

“We are using processes and staffing levels we set up in case of a no-deal Brexit.” The executive added: “While I think people don’t need to panic buy and should just shop normally, I’m not sure the government can guarantee all food supply in all instances.”

What do I need to know about the coronavirus?

There is no suggestion that there are food shortages, but people bringing forward some purchases was creating logistical challenges, he said.

Mr Hancock said on Thursday the government was “confident” food supplies and there was “absolutely no need” to panic-buy.

‘Tolerable limits’

A source at another supermarket said that while it had some overarching discussion with Defra and the department for business about overall readiness, it had not a conversation about ensuring uninterrupted food supplies.

When asked specifically about Mr Hancock’s comments, the supermarket said it did not recognise them.

A question that supermarkets are asking themselves internally is whether they could ramp up their online delivery to meet the demands of large numbers of people self- isolating.

The answer to that was no. Online delivery is only 6-7% of the overall market. “We can’t switch a whole load of new vans on overnight.”

While one supermarket said it was working round the clock, another said there was healthy demand but they were operating “very much within tolerable limits”.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-51769184

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