Coronavirus panic buyers should calm down

It is a sign of our extraordinary times that the main trade association for shops – the British Retail Consortium – is sending out an urgent message to customers: “buy less”. More specifically, they have urged people not to buy more than they need. The national panic buying and stockpiling has emptied shelves in supermarkets across the country, and has brought out the worst in a few people. One relative said he saw a man clear a supermarket shelf of pasta into his shopping trolley, and an old lady asked if she could just have one packet to eat, and he said no. It makes the blood boil. It has brought out the best in others, with community groups across the country mobilising to help make sure vulnerable people can get food and supplies. They are the heroes.

But there really is no need to panic. I wandered around the shops yesterday seeing people frenetic around me, and thought: “calm down.” The fundamental point is this: there is absolutely no threat to national food supplies. The food supply chain, from farmer to food manufacturer to haulage company has not been disrupted. But as people stockpile at home, this creates a surge in demand and empty shelves as supermarkets take time to restock. Other shoppers see the empty shelves, and they quite naturally feel the need to stockpile also. But it is a temporary shortage. In my local supermarket yesterday, literally all the cereals had gone by lunchtime. I went back in the evening, and the shopworkers were restocking the shelves, and there was enough cornflakes and rice crispies to feed an army. I chatted to the shelf stackers, who said wearily it had been a crazy day. Supermarkets are now limiting the number of items individual customers can buy.

The fundamental point is this: there is absolutely no threat to national food supplies

Of course, there is a reason for people to stock up at home if they are worried about having to self-isolate, and there being no one who can get food for them delivered to their door. I know if we had to self-isolate, there are plenty of neighbours I could call upon to do a trip to the supermarket for me. I suspect people are stocking up far more than they really need to. There are also very few items – such as hand sanitizers and thermometers – where demand has surged so much that production has not been able to keep up in the short term.

The situation is completely different to the only other recent time there has been panic buying, in the fuel protests of 2000, when striking lorry drivers blockaded refineries. The country ran out of petrol and diesel. The food supply chain was then disrupted, and the supermarkets couldn’t restock when they ran out. I remember then thinking the situation was genuinely scary: we were only three meals away from anarchy. But there is no need to panic now.

What we have now is what economists would call a demand shock, whereas the fuel protests were a supply shock. Things will return to normal when people feel they have stocked up enough at home, when the supermarkets have restocked – and when the country realises that national food supplies are not under threat.

And one last thing while I have your attention – please continue to support your local shops, cafes and restaurants. The collapse in demand means many are already really struggling. It is heartbreaking to see people who have spent years building up a business to see it suddenly taken away from them. If you don’t use them, you will lose them.

We are going through difficult times. Let’s not make them more difficult than they need be.