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UK supermarkets take steps to prevent panic buying and shortages | World news


UK supermarkets are ramping up contingency plans to help tackle demand from shoppers for essential provisions, with more sections of the population – including vulnerable and elderly people – preparing for self-isolation during the coronavirus outbreak.

The discounter Aldi has become the first supermarket to introduce across-the-board rationing, which means customers can buy no more than four of any single grocery line when they visit a store.

With the UK still in the grip of panic buying, two major online supermarket websites crashed and imposed “virtual queues” for their shoppers as retailers battled to cope with the ongoing surge of online grocery orders.

Waitrose said 500 John Lewis staff – including many drivers – had been temporarily moved to its food retail operation to bolster delivery and help fill gaps in its supply chain.

Grocery retailers are struggling to cope with demand for store cupboard essentials, including toilet roll, dried pasta and tinned tomatoes, as shoppers stock up in preparation for potential self-isolation and amid fears of shortages or store closures. Wet wipes, kitchen roll and biscuits are also selling out.

The surge in demand is on a par with that usually seen at Easter or Christmas – events that normally involve months of planning.

The frozen food specialist Iceland is arranging for stores to keep the first two hours of Wednesday morning free for elderly and vulnerable people. It said: “We are encouraging our store managers to dedicate the first two hours of opening on Wednesday morning to the elderly (those of state pension age) and vulnerable people in their community, such as those with disabilities.

“We commend the action taken by our colleagues in the west Belfast store, who have already dedicated an hour of early morning opening for the elderly. We are focused on being able to feed the nation and to support those most in need.”

In Ireland, which has witnessed panic buying on a scale similar to the UK’s, Lidl said it will introduce prioritised queuing and assistance from 9am to 11am each day for older customers.

After ongoing technical glitches over the weekend, which led to many Ocado deliveries delayed and then cancelled, the online grocer has stopped processing “new customers’ bookings” until further notice.

Existing Ocado customers logging into their accounts have been greeted with a message saying: “You are in a virtual queue. Sorry for the wait. Demand is very high at the moment so you may have to wait a little longer than usual to access the website.”

Meanwhile, Waitrose shoppers were at times also unable to access their accounts or complete their grocery orders. A Waitrose spokesperson said: “We are experiencing some intermittent technical issues due to high volumes, but we’re working to resolve them. We have a queue system in place to manage flow to the website.”

The environment secretary, George Eustice, has been holding daily phone calls with supermarket chief executives to ensure that supply chains suffer minimal disruption.

A spokesman for the Department of Environment, Fisheries and Rural Affairs (Defra) said: “We are in regular contact with the food industry to ensure it is well-prepared to deal with a range of scenarios. Retailers are continuing to monitor their supply chains and taking all the necessary steps to ensure consumers have the food and supplies they need.”



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