Coronavirus: food retail

Published 17/04/2020   |   Last Updated 27/05/2021   |   Reading Time minutes

Shopping for food and other essential items has become very different under lockdown.

This article sets out what measures the UK and Welsh governments have taken in response to the coronavirus emergency, and how food businesses have responded. It also outlines what’s been put in place to support vulnerable people and key workers.

This article was last updated on 1 May 2020.

What have the governments done?

On 24 March the UK and Welsh governments instructed non-essential businesses and premises to close to help slow the spread of the virus. This includes restaurants, cafés, pubs, bars and most retail premises.

Takeaways and food delivery can continue. On 17 March, the UK Government announced a relaxation of planning rules in England to grant permission for pubs and restaurants to operate as takeaways. The Welsh Government later confirmed that this was already the case in Wales without the need to amend planning rules.

Some businesses can still operate during the lockdown including:

  • supermarkets and other food shops;
  • medical services (such as dentists, opticians, physiotherapists etc);
  • pharmacies;
  • petrol stations and car garages;
  • hardware shops;
  • high street banks; and
  • post offices.

Food banks can also continue to operate.

The instruction is underpinned by law: the Welsh regulations came into effect on 26 March. A business breaking the regulations will be committing an offence and could be liable to an unlimited fine.

The Welsh Government has exempted grocery delivery and collection services from the 5p carrier bag charge to reduce the risk of spreading the virus.

The Food Standards Agency has published guidance for consumers which covers food hygiene and social distancing when shopping, and how to deal with takeaway food.

Food businesses are eligible for government support – see our separate articles on business support and employment.

How have food retailers responded?

Supermarkets and other food shops have responded to the extraordinary circumstances by making changes to protect their customers and staff.

Each supermarket chain has put in place its own measures which include:

  • limiting the number of customers allowed in-store at any one time;
  • floor markings, signs and/or directional barriers to help the flow of customers and maintain a two metre distance between people;
  • opening every other checkout, or placing screens between adjacent checkouts to protect staff (on 7 April it became mandatory in Wales to take all reasonable measures to maintain a two metre distance between workers);
  • installing transparent screens at checkouts between checkout operators and customers;
  • providing hand sanitiser and/or wipes on entry to stores;
  • encouraging contactless payment, with the limit increasing from £30 to £45;
  • closing aisles while staff restock shelves; and
  • changing opening hours and encouraging customers to shop when stores are less busy.

Smaller and independent food retailers have responded in similar ways depending on what is practical for their business. Some have also diversified into selling a wider range of products, for example a bakery or butcher selling other basic groceries.

Many food retailers, big and small, have ramped up their online and home delivery capacity. This could be a supermarket chain adding 100,000s of extra online shopping delivery slots, or a local greengrocer taking phone orders for veggie box deliveries.

We’ve published a separate list of coronavirus announcements from the major supermarkets. The British Retail Consortium has also put together a summary of some of the latest retailer announcements (this includes food and non-food retailers).

What about vulnerable people and key workers?

Supermarkets have sought to support vulnerable people and key workers by designating priority hours when only these people are allowed to shop in store, and by giving priority for online delivery slots to vulnerable people.

Each supermarket and food shop, even within the same chain, will have its own measures in place. So it’s important that vulnerable people and key workers check with the specific store before visiting.

Extra measures are in place to support people classified as ‘extremely vulnerable’ (i.e. those who’ve been asked to undertake ‘shielding’ because of a serious underlying health condition).

On 8 April the Welsh Government confirmed it had completed data agreements with the major supermarkets and that they will prioritise online home delivery orders for people who are shielding in Wales. This follows a similar arrangement between the UK Government and supermarkets for the most vulnerable people in England in place since late March.

The Welsh Government has published a statement outlining how vulnerable people’s personal data will be shared to ensure delivery of essential items, including food.

How else can vulnerable people get food?

On 3 April the Welsh Government announced that extremely vulnerable people who are not able to call on help from family members, friends or neighbours while they are shielding are eligible for a free weekly food box delivered to their home.

The £15 million ‘direct delivery food scheme’ is funded by the Welsh Government and delivered by local authorities. Extremely vulnerable people wishing to participate in the scheme should contact their local authority.

As of 27 April 7,572 food parcel orders had been submitted to the scheme. There had been 8,666 attempted deliveries (including 3,000 redeliveries) up to 23 April. 98% were handed to residents or left on the doorstep.

While food banks can continue to operate, the Trussell Trust says that some are facing difficult decisions about whether, practically, they can stay open. They are taking measures to observe social distancing and keep people safe, such as providing hand-washing facilities, reducing the number of sessions per week and providing people with a pre-packed food bank parcel.

Across Wales people in communities are supporting their neighbours, including offering food deliveries to vulnerable people. More information can be found on the Covid-19 Mutual Aid UK website which lists some local groups.

We've published a separate article explaining how people can volunteer during the coronavirus emergency.

Have food supply chains been affected?

In the first weeks of the coronavirus emergency in the UK, some people began stockpiling groceries leaving supermarket shelves empty of certain products.

According to research company Kantar, grocery sales in the UK amounted to £10.8 billion during four weeks in March, which is higher than levels seen at Christmas.

But total retail sales in March saw the worst decline on record, according to the British Retail Consortium and KPMG. They highlight a stark divide between food and non-food, and between physical and online, with people reassessing what’s important and how they purchase goods.

They also say that food and other essentials saw an unprecedented surge in early March, but then dropped off significantly after the lockdown and introduction of social distancing in stores.

This was backed up by ONS data published on 24 April which shows that the volume of retail sales fell by 5.1% in March. Within this, food saw growth of 10.4% (including an increase in alcohol sales of 31.4%). Online sales reached a record high of 22.3% of total retail sales. In contrast, clothing store sales fell sharply by 34.8%, compared with February.

On 15 March the major food retailers issued a joint letter to their customers reassuring them about the extra steps they were taking to ensure food supply and calling on people to shop considerately.

Supermarkets put measures in place such as reduced opening hours and restrictions on the number of a certain product that each customer can buy. However supermarkets are now beginning to lift some of these purchasing restrictions.

Governments have also put measures in place to help maintain food supplies. The Welsh Government instructed planning authorities to relax their enforcement of retail distribution planning conditions so that deliveries aren’t restricted unnecessarily and there’s more flexibility around store opening times. The UK Government has also issued guidance on relaxing drivers’ hours rules for the carriage of goods by road.

While the industry and government share information on food supplies on a voluntary basis, the Coronavirus Act 2020 created a power for both the UK and Welsh governments to require this information should an industry partner not co-operate voluntarily during a period of potential disruption.

On 8 April the Minister for Environment, Energy and Rural Affairs, Lesley Griffiths, told the Assembly that she had been working closely with partners across the supply chain to ensure continuity of food supplies. She said:

I can assure Members that retailers and supply chains are meeting the challenge. Our food stores are being restocked irrespective of their location. I want to sincerely thank the retail workforce for their hard work.

Article by Elfyn Henderson and Katy Orford, Senedd Research, National Assembly for Wales

We’ve published a range of material on the coronavirus pandemic, including a post setting out the help and guidance available for people in Wales and a timeline of Welsh and UK governments’ response.

You can see all our coronavirus-related publications by clicking here. All are updated regularly.