Thank you for contacting me about the availability of food during the outbreak of Covid-19.
This is a very challenging time for people right across the UK and I deeply understand your concerns on this issue. I would like to assure you that there is more than enough food to go around and the food supply chain is able to expand production to cope with increased demand. However, it is important that people think of others when they are purchasing and only buy what they need.
Retailers confirmed that sales of some foods have increased significantly but product availability is steadily improving. I have been assured that 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.
Both the Prime Minister and Environment Secretary have spoken with the retail industry who highlighted that the main challenge they are facing is keeping shelves stocked in the face of increased purchasing behaviour. In recognition of this, competition laws have been temporarily relaxed so retailers can work together to keep shops open and stocked. This could involve sharing data on stock levels, pooling staff to meet demand, or sharing distribution depots and delivery vans. The Government has also been working with local authorities to extend delivery hours to supermarkets so shelves can be replenished more quickly. It is encouraging that the Government and industry are continuing to work closely together to ensure people have the food and supplies they need.
Other measures which have been taken include relaxing planning rules so pubs and restaurants can operate food delivery services, and the waiving of the 5p plastic bag charge for online purchases to speed up deliveries.
It was sickening to see unscrupulous companies taking advantage of people by charging well over the odds for important items such as hand sanitiser. The Prime Minister has made clear that profiteering is particularly unacceptable at such a critical time of national emergency. I am aware that the Government is looking closely at the situation and listening to the advice of the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA). The CMA will consider any evidence that companies may have broken competition or consumer protection law, for example by charging excessive prices or making misleading claims about the efficacy of protective equipment, and it will take direct enforcement action in appropriate cases. In addition, the CMA will assess whether it should advise the Government to consider
Due to the increase in demand, I am aware that many elderly and vulnerable people have struggled to book supermarket time slots for their food deliveries. Supermarkets are adapting quickly to changes in demands, and are taking action to ensure a stable online delivery service This includes hiring more staff and prioritising delivery slots for those that need them most.
The Government has worked hard to prepare an army of councils, supermarkets, members of the armed forces and community volunteers to deliver parcels, including food, to citizens with underlying health conditions if they lack family or friends who could otherwise help. I am pleased that free food boxes containing essential supplies and household items such as pasta and tinned goods are now starting to be delivered. Depending on demand, hundreds of thousands of boxes could be delivered each week.
It is welcome that some major supermarkets have reserved time in stores for elderly and vulnerable people and I would encourage those that have yet to do so to consider this approach. I am encouraged that the Government is working in partnership with the groceries industry, local government, local resilience and emergency partners on a new Local Support System to ensure vulnerable people will receive basic groceries.
I am not aware of any current plan to extend Sunday trading hours, but this is, as you will appreciate, a fast-moving situation which I am continuing to monitor closely. However, I know the Government is working closely with the food industry to ensure the public can safely access the food and groceries they need during this time.
I am pleased that supermarkets are already protecting shopping time for NHS staff, and I know that the Government is in close contact with industry to discuss further ways they can support other key workers. I echo calls from Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, for supermarkets to look at ways of extending key-worker schemes, where possible, to workers such as teachers, shop workers and food delivery drivers.
Thank you again for taking the time to contact me. I will continue to monitor this issue closely.