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Coronavirus: supermarket home delivery services hit capacity as shopping rush moves online | World news

Australia’s major supermarkets are grappling with further challenges as the coronavirus crisis continues and panic buyers shift to online shopping.

Supermarkets rapidly sold out last week of essentials such as toilet paper, soap, flour, sugar, pasta and other kinds of long-life goods, prompting public outcry and censure from politicians – especially after two people were caught on camera in an altercation over toilet rolls.

“There is no need to bulk-buy products at supermarkets including toilet paper, paracetamol and canned food,” the NSW Department of Health said in a Facebook post on Thursday. The post went on to suggest that online delivery services were an option for households who might be required to self-isolate.

Consumers appear to have taken this suggestion to heart. Over the past week, the major Australian supermarkets have been inundated with requests for online delivery, with available slots quickly selling out and delivery services reaching absolute capacity.

Coles’ delivery windows were closed for a week in many areas of Melbourne and Sydney, with the website automatically prompting consumers to elect the “click and collect” option if they wanted their groceries sooner. Yet the earliest available collection date in many inner-city locales on Tuesday afternoon was Monday 16 March.

Customers to Woolworths’ online store reported similar wait times and delivery slots being sold out, particularly in inner-city areas.

On Sunday, Coles’ headquarters announced it was limiting purchases of toilet rolls to one pack per person, after a temporary limit of four per person failed to halt the buying frenzy.

“Unfortunately many stores are still selling out within an hour of delivery,” the company said in a media release. The change was made “so that toilet rolls are available for more of our customers, particularly the elderly and people who are unable to purchase in large volumes”.

“We have asked our suppliers to focus on increasing production of larger pack sizes and we are prioritising the delivery of these packs to our stores, as a pack of 30 rolls should last an average family for around 3 weeks,” it said.

A Coles spokesperson told Guardian Australia that the company had opened additional delivery windows and put extra delivery vans on the roads to meet the customer demand, which was particularly acute in metropolitan areas.

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“When we become aware that a customer has special needs, we do everything we can to help them.”

Woolworths Group’s chief executive, Brad Banducci, said in a statement on Thursday that the company was facing “unusual and challenging times” and so was rationing the purchase of toilet paper to two packs per transaction, bags of rice over 2kg to one per transaction, and hand sanitiser to two vials per transaction – dispensed over the counter from the customer service desk, like cigarettes.

A Woolworths spokesperson said: “Like our supermarkets, our online teams have been working hard to manage higher-than-usual demand for deliveries over the past week. We’ve been ramping up our delivery capacity with the support of our transport partners and continue to do all we can to fulfil orders for our customers as quickly as possible. We thank customers for their patience as we work to meet their shopping needs online.”

Woolworths did not respond to questions about whether it was able to or had a method of prioritising delivery for elderly or vulnerable members of society.

The reports about stockpiling were “concerning”, said Jacqueline Phillips, director of policy at the Australian Council of Social Services. “People relying on Newstart or other allowances are living day to day, struggling to meet their most immediate needs with no capacity to purchase additional goods.

“It is likely that coronavirus will impact those with poor general health, including those with chronic conditions, the most severely,” Phillips told Guardian Australia in a statement. “We know that this includes many people on very low incomes, who generally have poorer health than others in the community.”

It was critical those in the most vulnerable sections of society were represented in government engagement forums and decision-making processes, Phillips said.

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