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Supermarkets to be allowed to increase night-time deliveries | Business

Restrictions on the hours that delivery lorries can operate in built-up areas are to be relaxed in the latest step to deal with the coronavirus outbreak.

Top supermarket executives held a conference call with George Eustice, the secretary of state for environment, food and rural affairs, on Monday afternoon. It was the second group call with the big grocers in four days, after a weekend that saw panic buying of essential items such as toilet roll, dried pasta and tinned tomatoes.

The teleconference also discussed ways in which infected shoppers could pick up goods ordered online from stores without interacting with staff and the possible relaxation of other regulations, such as limits on drivers’ working time, in order to help those in self-isolation.

Eustice said: “By allowing night-time deliveries to our supermarkets and food retailers, we can free them up to move their stocks more quickly from their warehouses to their shelves.”

He added: “Our retailers have well-established contingency plans in place and are taking all the necessary steps to ensure consumers have the food and supplies they need. I will continue to work closely with them over the coming days and weeks on this.”

The potential expansion of click and collect services is being discussed after the grocers made clear on Friday that there was limited capacity to expand home deliveries to cater to those in isolation.

Longer term, retailers also want government to consider relaxing competition rules, which currently limit co-operation between retailers, if a situation develops in which food supplies are affected or stores in a particular area are forced to close because of illness.

The latest call came as grocery executives said weekend trade had been akin to Easter, one of the biggest weekends of the year, as retailers struggled to keep up with demand from shoppers preparing for self-isolation or disruption caused by a step up in the spread of the disease.

The British Retail Consortium trade body said demand for a limited number of products was “unprecedented outside of the Christmas period”.

Andrew Opie, director of food and sustainability at the British Retail Consortium, said retailers were working “round the clock” to help consumers but that communities must also help each other. “Where people are self-isolating, it is up not just to supermarkets but also friends and neighbours to support them in getting the goods they need. This is a time for everyone to come together and support one another, particularly those who are vulnerable.”

Some retailers have imposed limits on the number of items shoppers can purchase in key product areas such as antibacterial cleaner, toilet paper, hand sanitiser and long-life milk.

Tesco, the UK’s biggest supermarket, has limited purchases of in-demand items including dried pasta, tinned vegetables, children’s medication and long-life milk to five per shopper.

Asda, Morrisons and Boots have limited hand sanitiser to two bottles per customer while online grocer Ocado has limited toilet roll orders to two packs per shopper and Calpol to three bottles. Morrisons introduced a limit of six bottles of bleach per person on Monday.

One senior supermarket executive said: “Trading over the weekend has been very strong. Most of the supply chain for food retailers is short and they can get factories to ramp up production. We are getting daily deliveries but there will be a bit of time to catch up.”

The latest teleconference with Defra came after the health secretary, Matt Hancock, was criticised for claiming he had been in touch with supermarkets and that he was “confident” food supplies would not run out.

Several supermarket executives told the Guardian that until Friday there had been no communication from the government about managing potential shortages during the outbreak.

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