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UK supermarkets braced for stockpiling if coronavirus escalates | Business

British supermarkets are preparing for stockpiling and panic buying by consumers if the coronavirus outbreak worsens in the UK – but analysts and retailers said the sector was prepared to handle major disruption.

A major outbreak could result in “panic buying, empty shelves and food riots”, according to a research note by Bruno Monteyne, an analyst at the investment firm Alliance Bernstein. Monteyne was previously a supply chain director at Tesco. However, he added that retailers have “ready-made plans” to deal with disruption and move to “feed-the-nation” status.

“The industry has plans to deal with this,” he said. “Yes, it will be chaotic (and expect pictures of empty shelves) 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 and different teams preparing responses to a flu pandemic .

He 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: “We would expect them 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 all grocers and suppliers to 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.

Sarah BoseleyHannah Devlin and Martin Belam

One major grocer told the Guardian it is already 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 because of “exceptionally high demand”. It said: “More people than usual seem to be placing particularly large orders” and advised shoppers to place orders two to three days before they might normally.

Waitrose, Morrisons and the Co-op convenience chain both said they were seeing more demand for some products such as cleaning products and hand sanitisers.

“All the big supermarkets have a plan B for sourcing,” said a senior executive at one of the UK’s main supermarkets. “There has been time to plan for this as it has developed and to try to solve any problematic areas, such as if one country is relied upon for sourcing. By and large, retailers have multiple options for sourcing from other parts of the world.”

Andrew Opie, the director of food and sustainability at the British Retail Consortium, said there had been an increase in demand for hand sanitisers and other hygiene products but added: “Disruption to supply chains has been limited and the availability of products remains good.

“Retailers are working closely with their suppliers and monitoring consumer behaviour to anticipate changes in future demand.”

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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.”

Shares in UK supermarkets rallied on Monday amid reports of stockpiling. Ocado jumped 4.2%, making it one of the top FTSE 100 risers, followed by Morrisons (+3.5%) and Sainsbury (+3%).

Shane Brennan, the chief executive of the Cold Chain Federation, said that a significant outbreak in the UK would be “unprecedented” but that there was no significant disruption so far in the UK food chain. The federation represents the operators of chilled warehouses and refrigerated trucks, which are vital to the supply of food globally.

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