The government has asked supermarkets to increase availability of home delivery services to help people in self-isolation with coronavirus get access to food and other essentials.
Top supermarket executives held a call with George Eustice, the secretary of state for environment, food and rural affairs on Friday afternoon. The teleconference came after the health secretary, Matt Hancock, claimed he had been in touch with supermarkets and he was “confident” food supplies would not run out.
However, several supermarket executives told the Guardian that until Friday there had been no communication from the government about managing potential shortages during the outbreak.
During the call Eustice is understood to have asked if the industry had the capacity to cope with increased home deliveries to cope with self-isolation cases, with the government advising people who have returned from badly affected coronavirus areas to stay indoors and avoid contact with other people.
The supermarkets said they had already seen a surge in online orders as some shoppers avoid public spaces. One executive said their existing delivery slots were already full and the industry might be able to expand capacity by up to 20% but was unlikely to be able to do more.
Prior to the call, industry chiefs held a summit between themselves earlier this week at which they discussed working together if food supplies did become limited because of factory shutdowns, for example.
On Friday, Eustice is also understood to have asked supermarket bosses for details on how they were coping with a surge in demand for essentials such as toilet roll, hand sanitiser and pasta.
One industry insider said: “The government has been a bit slow off the mark but they are getting into gear. There is a string of meetings starting today.”
More than one executive said their main fear was that panic-driven stockpiling would lead to shortages.
One executive said that, while there were likely to be short-term gaps on shelves where some products were in high demand, there was plenty of capacity to cope.
“It has been a much bigger week than normal for early March but it’s not as big as Easter or Christmas,” he said.
A separate call between officials at Eustice’s department, trade bodies and retailers looked at updating plans already put in place in case of shortages expected around the UK’s exit from Europe.
One executive said: “In essence this situation is very similar [to Brexit]. Oh the irony.”
Another said: “There will be cases of shortages in the supply chain but people don’t need to panic. Stock will come back in. We have very well-established protocols that will swing in to gear at a time like this.”
George Eustice said in a statement: “The retailers reassured me they have well-established contingency plans and are taking all the necessary steps to ensure consumers have the food and supplies they need.”
He added: “I will be convening a further meeting with industry, retailers and public sector organisations early next week to discuss support for vulnerable groups who may be in isolation.”
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