In Brief

Panic buying and army guards - supermarkets rehearse coronavirus scenarios

Expert says ‘feed the nation’ plans are already being drawn up by major chains

British supermarkets have drawn up contingency plans designed to help the nation deal with any panic buying brought on by a sudden escalation of the coronavirus.

The Guardian says that the “feed the nation” plans would see supermarkets work with suppliers to scale back the variety of foods and groceries available, concentrating instead on maintaining supplies of staple products.

The City analyst Bruno Monteyne, of investment firm Alliance Bernstein, said that retailers have “ready-made plans” to deal with disruption and move to “feed-the-nation” status because a major outbreak of the virus could result in “panic buying, empty shelves and food riots.”

In a note to investors, Monteyne, previously a supply chain director at Tesco, said: “Yes, it will be chaotic (and expect pictures of empty shelves), but the industry will reduce complexity to keep the country fed.” 

He added that Tesco has practised “multi-day simulation” exercises, including mocked-up news coverage. The grocer confirmed the story and said the plans were all part of being a “responsible retailer.”

Expanding on the “major reduction in ranges” he expects, Monteyne said large chains were likely “to be drawing up lists right now of which products will be prioritised”.

If there are acute food shortages he said he expected the army to be called in “to protect depots, food trucks and stores”.

He insisted that he did not expect prices to rise because “food retailers cannot be seen to be profiteering at a moment of crisis”.

Nevertheless, the industry has already noted a change in buying habits as concern over the coronavirus grows. 

Iceland said: “Sales of frozen food have seen notable increases and we have noticed a trend towards customers selecting multibuy deals and larger packs.”

Ocado has advised customers to place orders further in advance than usual because of “exceptionally high demand”. It said: “More people than usual seem to be placing particularly large orders.”

Ratula Chakraborty, professor of business management at the University of East Anglia, told Sky News that the stockpiling in UK homes "may become rife”.

The trend is already beginning in other countries. The BBC says Australian supermarket shelves are being “stripped of supplies” and the Daily Mail reports of “panic buying” by “anxious shoppers”.

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