One of the most striking stories to come out of the unfolding COVID-19 crisis has been that of ‘panic buying’. Photos of supermarkets stripped bare and stories of key workers being unable to buy essentials has made for harrowing coverage.
The narrative of ‘selfish hoarders’ has not taken long to take hold in the press or on social media, where some have also suggested it vindicates the idea of we ‘Anglo-Saxons’ as more self-centred than our neighbours on the continent, where there are not similar reports.
But it isn’t as clear-cut as all that. Some very well-informed commentators have started to push back, very persuasively, against the idea that the UK is in the grip of mass panic-buying.
Their case, set out here by Greg Callus of the Financial Times, is both simple and plausible: that our incredibly efficient, just-in-time supply chain-driven supermarkets are struggling to adapt to an extraordinarily sudden shift in an entire nation’s shopping habits. A whole system built around predicting demand and minimising waste or excess storage was always going to need time to adapt to a major shift, even if there are no actual shortages.
For a small urban supermarket such as a Tesco Metro or Little Waitrose to end up with empty shelves, all that’s required is for the commuters who normally stop in there for a few bits on their way home to try and do a bigger shop. And as Stephen Bush points out in the New Statesman, these are just the sort of supermarket most likely to be frequented by journalists.
Their excitable coverage may very well have helped to fuel unease amongst the broader public and exacerbated what was initially quite a small problem. It will also have focused on instances of bad behaviour, magnifying such acts in the public imagination and building a potentially misleading impression of the shopping public.
In fact this reflects a broader problem, which long predates the coronavirus crisis, of media coverage over-emphasising the experiences of the cities (especially London) in which the media class live. Supermarket shortages are definitely not just confined to London – stories crop up in the Yorkshire Post, Birmingham Mail, Liverpool Echo, Express & Star, and Manchester Evening News – but there is still a danger of over-estimating the extent to which this represents the national picture – as Callus argues, urban supermarkets are those whose supply model is most vulnerable to even a small shift in demand if it is not foreseen.
Similarly, the headline figure that the British have spent an extra £1 billion on groceries over the past few weeks needs to be put into perspective. Spread over the number of people shopping and the overall value of the UK grocery sector, it really isn’t all that much – especially when you factor in the number of people needing to eat at home who would previously have picked up one or more of their meals at work or otherwise out.
And as for those stories about well-stocked shelves in European supermarkets, it can’t just be put down to greater civic-mindedness on the part of the citizenry – several continental countries have imposed much stronger formal restrictions on movement than Britain. As the Sun notes:
“…supermarkets in Italy, France, Spain and Germany have been limiting how many people can enter a store at one time. In parts of Italy, the country worst hit by the deadly virus, customers can visit a supermarket only every 48 hours and must stand three metres apart.”
None of this is to say that there isn’t a problem, even if actual hoarders are a much smaller part of it than press coverage might lead you to believe. Ministers must ensure that key workers, the elderly, and other at-risk groups are able to get what they need.
But notwithstanding the several measures both the Government and supermarkets have announced over the past week, including food packages for the most vulnerable and coordinated deliveries, we ought to expect the sector to adapt its supply chains to the new conditions in time. Ministers can always supplement this with stronger legal restrictions if needed.
A misleading portrait of the national mood is not just unflattering – it will shape (and misshape) the formation of Government policy as the crisis continues to unfold. If the key lesson here is merely that ministers and journalists need to take more care in how they communicate with an uneasy public, best it be learned this side of a total lockdown.