Wave of panic buying sees British supermarkets impose shopping limits on basic items

National budget preparations to include measures to address the coronavirus-inspired consumer crisis

An employee selects items of shopping for home delivery at the Tesco Basildon Pitsea Extra supermarket, operated by Tesco Plc, in Basildon, U.K., on Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2015. Many European food retailers are coming to terms with persistently low inflation as well as consumers who remain frugal yet purchase food more frequently. Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

British superstores and retail centres are facing restrictions after a surge in demand for home necessities amid fears of disruption to supply chains as consumers begin stockpiling over coronavirus fears.

The nation’s largest supermarket chain, Tesco, has introduced rationing on a number of products including dry pasta, UHT milk and some tinned vegetables, as a rush on hand sanitiser gels and other non-perishable products has left shelves empty.

Other chains followed suit on Monday, with some placing limits on online purchases while high-street retailers Boots and Superdrug limited hand gel sales in their shops to two per customer.

The British Retail Consortium (BRC) said it was working with the government to protect consumers and ease strains on supply chains.

The BRC's chief executive, Helen Dickinson OBE, told The National the association had given the government "a list of regulations where relaxation would ease pressure in the supply chain, including extending drivers' hours and giving flexibility on delivery times to stores".

Online retailers and marketplaces operating in the UK have also moved to protect consumers from profiteers after the Competition and Markets Authority warned suppliers to act responsibly and said it was monitoring prices.

Facebook is temporarily banning adverts and listings for medical masks. The social media giant had already announced a ban on adverts for hygiene products claimed to be in short supply.

“We're monitoring Covid-19 closely and will make necessary updates to our policies if we see people trying to exploit this public health emergency,” Facebook’s director of product management, Rob Leathern, said.

Stockpiling and panic buying have been fuelled in part by recommendations last week by health authorities for Britons to "plan ahead" in case they are forced to self-isolate for several weeks.

But the country's chief scientific adviser Patrick Vallance said he believed there was "absolutely no reason" for the public to panic buy.

An emergency meeting of the UK’s Cobra committee was held on Monday as experts predicted Wednesday’s budget will be influenced by the impact of the virus.

Ministers decided to delay the introduction of so-called “social distancing” measures including shutting schools and banning large events.

The decision means the UK remains in the first “containment” phase of the government’s plan to tackle the spread of the virus.

Ms Dickinson said retailers are facing “a rise in demand for certain products unprecedented outside of the Christmas period”.

But the BRC chief sought to allay consumer fears surrounding shortages: “Our members are working hard to ensure consumers have access to the products they need.

“Even where there are challenges, retailers are well-versed in providing effective measures to keep retail sites running smoothly, and they are working with suppliers to increase the supply of goods,” she said.

The BRC said it was too early to predict what the impact of coronavirus will be on sales but has warned “if disruption to supply chains continues and spreads, then retailers and consumers may eventually see knock on effects on cost or availability of goods”.

The group said it could foresee an impact to sales in the luxury sector due to the decline in Chinese tourists: “Restrictions on travel to and from China may well have an impact in the short to medium term for fashion and luxury goods retailers, as will the slowing of China’s economy a result of imposed quarantine zones.”

The UK’s Chancellor Rishi Sunak's first budget is expected to announce extra funding for efforts to combat the virus including help for the NHS and temporary support for small businesses, such as retailers hit by a drop-off in demand.

On Sunday he told the BBC the government was looking at "a range of scenarios" and making sure it was well prepared for all of them.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies said concerns over coronavirus will be at the centre of this week’s budget and has warned there will be negative impacts on the economy as a result of the outbreak.

“The key focus of an economic policy response should be to ensure continued delivery of public services and to minimise the long-term effects of what will hopefully be a short-term increase in levels of illness,” it said.

“There are likely to be negative effects on both the demand side and the supply side of the economy. This could be substantial but hopefully short-lived.”

But the sight of empty shelves in supermarkets across the country has raised lingering fears of continued shortages, as cases of the virus continue to grow.

The UK’s Food and Drink Federation (FDF) said it was working with the government to counter the disruption.

The FDF's chief executive, Ian Wright CBE, told The National: "The FDF is in regular dialogue with the government and its agencies on how the food and drink industry should react to the spread of Covid-19."

“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.”