In Brief

Coronavirus: supermarkets start rationing to combat panic buying

Stockpiling has led to empty shelves at some UK supermarkets - but shortages may be short-lived

Tesco has begun restricting sales of essential food and household items amid growing reports of stockpiling and panic buying because of the coronavirus outbreak.

Customers will be limited to buying no more than five of certain products, including antibacterial gels, dry pasta, long-life milk and some tinned vegetables.

The UK’s largest grocer said some individual stores may have introduced their own restrictions, with “branch managers making a judgement at a localised level”.

Asda and Boots are restricting hand sanitiser to two bottles per person. Waitrose and Sainsbury’s have yet to put a cap on any of their products in stores.

Ocado, the online grocer, was rationing toilet rolls on Sunday evening, with customers able to buy no more than two 12-roll packs of Andrex.

A Retail Economics survey reported by the BBC found that as many as 10% of UK consumers are stockpiling, and social is awash with photographs, videos and reports of panic buying and empty shelves. The Daily Mail says photos from one Asda store in London showed aisles that had been “stripped of toilet roll”.

The Guardian says the panic began after Public Health England urged members of the public to “plan ahead” in case they had to self-isolate for a couple of weeks.

However, the government’s chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, insists there is “absolutely no reason” for the British public to resort to panic buying. Boris Johnson said on Sunday: “We’ve had no advice from the scientific advisers or medical officers that there’s any need for people to buy stuff in.”

Dr Andrew Potter, chair in logistics and transport at Cardiff Business School, said the problems might be short-lived.

“Whilst there might be empty shelves at the moment in the shops, over the next week or so, we will see them replenish,” he said. “The supply chain will start to deliver stuff through to the stores and hopefully this shortage - which is fairly short-term - will clear and everything will be back to normal again.”

The environment secretary, George Eustice, is set to meet food industry representatives later today.

A Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs spokesperson said: “The environment secretary will hold a further call with chief executives from the UK’s leading supermarkets and industry representatives on 9 March to discuss their response to the coronavirus. The meeting will discuss support for vulnerable groups who may be in isolation.”

Last week, supermarkets rehearsed various coronavirus scenarios, with “feed the nation” plans being drawn up by major chains.

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