Coronavirus panic-buying: As Tesco and Waitrose start rationing items, should customers be stockpiling?

Since the coronavirus outbreak began in January, a rising number of cases around the world has led to an increase in panic and concern. 

There are now over 110,000 confirmed cases, while approximately 62,000 patients have recovered and more than 4,000 people have died from the condition.

There are currently more than 300 confirmed cases in the UK, and there have been five deaths.

Fear has understandably begun shaping people’s behaviour; sales of hand sanitiser gel (recommended by the World Health Organisation as a preventative measure) spiked 255 per cent in February.

It has been reported that supermarkets including Tesco and Waitrose have implemented rationing of certain items in response to customers panic-buying and stockpiling.

Boots confirmed with The Independent that a notable increase in hand sanitiser sales resulted in a limit of two purchases per customer, although the retailer said it does have stock available in its warehouses.

Ocado warned customers they are facing “exceptionally high demand” for delivery slots, while elsewhere around the world, it has been reported that items like toilet roll are also increasingly scarce as people buy in bulk.

But should you be stockpiling in preparation for a period of self-isolation, or potential ill health, or will a spree of panic-buying cause more problems than it solves?

What are consumers stockpiling?

In addition to hand sanitiser, it has been suggested that members of the British public are stockpiling other goods including food and medicines.

A number of American Twitter users have shared images of empty shelves at Costco supermarkets, seemingly due to fears over Covid-19.

And in the UK Ocado has warned customers of high demand. “More people than usual seem to be placing particularly large orders.

“As a result, delivery slots are selling out quicker than expected,” an email sent to customers read.

Ocado emphasised to The Independent that this was a result of a shortage of delivery slots as opposed to food products being in low supply.

But Bruno Monteyne, senior analyst at Bernstein and Tesco Asia supply chain director, has said that a major outbreak of the virus could “quickly lead to panic buying, empty shelves and food riots”.

“The objective isn’t to scaremonger. On the contrary: the industry has plans to deal with this,” Mr Monteyne said.

“Yes, it will be chaotic (and expect pictures of empty shelves), but the industry will reduce complexity to keep the country fed.”

Other businesses have reported seeing spikes in the buying of medicines and pharmaceutical goods. Shyam Morjaria, superintendent pharmacist at online pharmacy UK Meds, told The Independent there had been “an increase in purchases of cough and cold remedies, vitamins, hygiene products and face masks.

“Worried-well patients attempt to do everything within their means to protect themselves against the coronavirus outbreak”.

How are businesses responding to reports of stockpiling?

The British Retail Consortium (BRC) says retail companies have not been drastically affected as of yet.

“Disruption to supply chains has been limited, and the availability of products remains good,” Andrew Opie, director of food and sustainability at the BRC, told The Independent.

“Retailers are working closely with their suppliers and monitoring consumer behaviour to anticipate changes in future demand.”

Mr Opie added that sales of hand sanitiser have increased due to individuals and businesses making “sensible precautions”, and retailers are “taking necessary steps to meet the rise in demand for certain hygiene products”.

Ian Wright CBE, chief executive of the Food and Drink Federation (FDF), agreed that the UK is well-prepared to avoid shortages: “At this stage supply chains have experienced disruption but there is no evidence of significant disruption to food supplies.

“UK food and drink manufacturers have robust procedures in place.”

But Markus Kruger, chief economist for commercial data and analytics firm Dun and Bradstreet, explained to The Independent that the continued spread of the coronavirus could have long-term “potential impact to businesses, their supply chains and the economy at large”.

“Data shows that there are 51,000 companies worldwide that source directly from the impacted regions in China, with another five million companies indirectly exposed via ‘Tier 2’ supply chain relationships,” Mr Kruger said.

“South Korea and Italy, and companies are having to assess the potential risk to their supply chain and business operations.”

Mr Kruger added that while “the situation in China is starting to improve and several factories have re-opened (albeit not working with full capacity), supply chains will remain under stress for several more weeks”.

“This supply chain disruption comes at a time when UK companies are also dealing with uncertainty around the potential implementation of new tariffs and quotas in UK-EU trade at the end of the Brexit transition period in December,” he added.

So is stockpiling necessary?

On Tuesday 3 March, chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance joined Boris Johnson to address the nation over the coronavirus outbreak.

Mr Vallance said members of the public should not resort to “panic-buying” but said that measures to stockpile may be required in the event of household quarantine.

“I think the advice is that there is absolutely no reason to be doing any panic buying of any sort or going out and keeping large supplies of things,” the chief scientific adviser said.

“Clearly there will need to be measures in cases of household quarantine for making sure food is in the right place at the right time but we imagine that could be a rolling case of household quarantine if that measure becomes necessary, and clearly things will need to be in place for care homes and so on if that decision is made.”

On the UK government’s website, it says that stockpiles are maintained of “the most important medicines and protective equipment for healthcare staff who may come into contact with patients with the virus”.

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