Customers who shop online with one supermarket could soon begin receiving their groceries from a rival store’s delivery service under emergency measures due to be implemented next week.
In response to an unprecedented surge in demand sparked by the coronavirus crisis, the Environment Secretary George Eustice on Thursday announced that competition laws would be relaxed to allow supermarkets to pool resources.
The changes, which will be introduced next week, will allow retailers to share staff, delivery depots and vans, while stores in close proximity to one another will be able to coordinate closure days to enable more time for restocking.
It came as Boris Johnson was on Thursday forced to call on the public to “be reasonable” as concern over panic-buying continued to mount and supermarket shelves were again stripped bare.
At several stores large queues formed early in the morning, with one Sainsbury’s store near Guildford forced to open early due to the volume of customers waiting outside.
In West Yorkshire, it also emerged that a foodbank had been broken into, with food, sanitary products and basic supplies stolen, while reports also surfaced of allotments being raided.
There are now growing fears that school closures and a potential lockdown of London pubs, cafes, restaurants could only exacerbate the situation.
Urging the public to show restraint, the Prime Minister on Thursday insisted that that the UK had “good supply chain from farm to fork” and that there were no reasons for shops really to be empty”.
Speaking at the daily Number 10 press conference, he added: "Please be reasonable, please be reasonable in your shopping, be considerate and thoughtful for others as you do it".
The temporary relaxation of competition law comes after The Daily Telegraph revealed that supermarket leaders had called on ministers to ease rules making it illegal for them to work together.
Legislation amending parts of the Competition Act 1998 will be introduced next week and will apply retrospectively.
Commenting on the changes, Mr Eustice said: “We’ve listened to the powerful arguments of our leading supermarkets and will do whatever it takes to help them feed the nation.
“By relaxing elements of competition laws temporarily, our retailers can work together on their contingency plans and share the resources they need with each other during these unprecedented circumstances.”
Mr Eustice also praised the measures already taken by supermarkets, including the limiting of item purchases across all product ranges, adding that would help “keep shelves stocked and supply chains resilient”.
Earlier in the day he indicated that supermarket and food supply staff would also be defined as "key workers", acknowledging that as many as a third would be impacted by school closures.
The list is expected to be published by the Government today (20 March).
However, industry insiders on Thursday warned that supply chains were already under pressure, with a source at a major producer of consumer goods revealing that current demand was far exceeding their daily capacity.
While the industry believes that demand will fall back to manageable levels again within two weeks, ministers have been warned that riots and civil disobedience could break out if production is unable to keep up.
The Telegraph can also reveal that thousands of lorries vital to the delivery of supplies to supermarkets and business during the coronavirus crisis could be grounded after MOT tests were suspended.
The Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency (DVSA) told freight companies on Wednesday night that it was suspending all MOT tests for lorries over 3.5 tonnes on Thursday and Friday as its hundreds of “testers” went into coronavirus isolation to avoid contracting the disease.
The Freight Transport Association (FTA) said at least 2,000 lorries a day would have missed their MOTs as a result - and that if it was to continue the consequences for businesses and transporting supplies or products was “unthinkable.”
“Right now the logistics industry has a critical role to play. Other people need it. To hobble its capability just seems unthinkable,” said James Firth, head of road freight regulation policy for the FTA.
The organisation is urging the Department for Transport to temporarily waive MOT requirements during the crisis, with Governments sources indicating that a relaxation could be in the pipeline to help those supplying food to supermarkets.
Separately, Theresa Villiers, the former environment secretary, has urged ministers to do more to help supermarkets deliver shopping to millions of households being forced to self-isolate.
Speaking to The Daily Telegraph, Ms Villiers warned that as more people are forced to stay at home the demand for home deliveries would surge, despite supermarkets already exceeding their capacity.
“Clearly the retailers don’t have the capacity to provide deliveries to millions of households. I don’t see how on the basis of their routine operating capacity on delivery they are going to be able to do that,” Ms Villiers said.
“There’s this ambiguity at the moment about people who are encouraged to stay at home where they can but able to buy food.
“If the advice gets even tougher then there will need to be further Government intervention to ensure that we get more home deliveries to far more homes than retailers have the capacity to do at the moment.
It comes after Ocado, the online supermarket, shut down its website until the weekend after receiving a 400 percent surge in demand on its previous record, while a number of other supermarkets also experienced crashes.
Ocado insisted that it had no product shortages, adding that when its website relaunches on Saturday customers will face limits on the number of items they can add to their basket.
Responding, a Government source claimed that plans to ease competition laws would help boost capacity, as supermarkets would be able to share deliveries.
Relaxation of limits on drivers’ hours and delivery times has also increased the ability of supermarkets to replenish stocks.
But with supermarkets warning that deliveries account for just seven percent of the grocery market, there are fears that there is only limited scope to expand without Government assistance.
Updating MPs on food supply on Thursday, Mr Eustice was also urged by Labour to work with the supermarkets to ensure that food banks continued to receive supplies.
It follows reports that supply to food banks has fallen by up to 50 percent in some regions in recent days, while distribution centres have been reduced due to the number of elderly volunteers being forced to self-isolate.
FareShare, the food poverty charity, called for ministers to make available £5 million pounds to enable farmers, manufacturers and distributors to continue supplying food to the organisation.
Its chief executive, Lindsay Boswell, warned that it was facing an “unprecedented challenge”, adding that the closure of schools, public spaces and workplaces was likely to lead to a “significant increase in demand for our service”.
His concerns were echoed by shadow environment secretary Luke Pollard, who told the Commons "This is now an immediate family emergency for many of those."
“We won't get through this crisis unless there's Government intervention to support those people and ensure that we have those food supply chains remaining open,” he added.
Source: The Telegraph