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Coronavirus: NHS chief says shoppers should be 'ashamed' to stockpile after frontline staff go without

5 min read

British people should be "ashamed" of themselves for stockpiling food amid the coronavirus crisis, a senior NHS figure has said.

The health service's medical director Stephen Powis hit out at "selfish" shoppers hoarding goods, warning that the move risked NHS staff coming off late shifts being confronted by empty shelves.

His comments came as Environment Secretary George Eustice moved to reassure the public that there was "more than enough food to go around" as retailers step up their supplies.

But he refused to rule out Government-imposed limits on purchases if shoppers do not comply with supermarket's own voluntary limits.

The pair were speaking alongside retail chief Helen Dickinson at the latest Downing Street press conference, which comes after Boris Johnson ordered the shutdown of theatres, cafes, restaurants, cinemas and gyms to try and halt the spread of the virus. 

Professor Powis said: "I would just like to make a plea on behalf of all my colleagues in the NHS - nurses, doctors, paramedics and many many others who are working incredibly hard at the moment to manage this outbreak of coronavirus and are preparing for the surge that they know will be coming at them.

"It's incredibly important that they too have access to food to those essential supplies that they need."

The NHS chief pointed to a viral video circulating on social media which shows a critical care nurse in tears after being unable to shop for the goods she needed "at the end of a long shift".

"And frankly we should all be ashamed that that has to happen," he said.

Professor Powis added: "It is unacceptable. These are the very people that we will need to look after us and our loved ones in the week ahead.

"It's critical that by not stockpiling, by not selfishly shopping, by leaving those supplies for others too that our health workers are able to get access to what they need to. 

"These are the people that we will all be relying on more than we ever have done in the weeks ahead."


Mr Eustice, who on Saturday held fresh talks with supermarket chiefs alongside Boris Johnson, said the Government recognised the country was facing a "challenging time".

"However there is one message that I want to start with this afternoon: which is to be responsible when you shop and think of others," he said.

"Buying more than you need means that others may be left without. And it is making life more difficult for those frontline workers, such as our doctors and nurses and NHS support staff who are working so hard in such difficult circumstances.

"So as you shop, think of those who are finishing their late shifts and need to pop to the local shop at the end of a long day."

The Environment Secretary has already moved to extend online delivery hours and relax competition laws to allow supermarkets to work together to keep food moving.

And he sought to reassure the country that its food supplies were secure amid a shutdown of vast swathes of the economy.

"There is more than enough food to go around," he said. "And our food supply chain is able to expand production to cope with increased demand."

"In the last week sales of some foods have increased significantly and manufacturers have produced around 50% more than they usually would.

"There is no shortage of food available and more is arriving at shops every day. But the challenge that all of our retailers have faced is keeping shelves stocked throughout the day in the face of increased purchasing behaviours."

Many supermarkets have already move to limit the number of items shoppers can buy in a single trip in a bid to keep food on the shelves, and Mr Eustice insisted it was not "necessary or appropriate" for government to impose its own restrictions on food purchases.

"Today I'm asking everybody to respect what those supermarkets are doing," he said.

But, asked to rule out rationining in the future, Mr Eustice said: "As I said earlier, all of the major retailers are working together and exercising their own judgement about where it’s appropriate to put item limits on certain issues.

"Toilet roll is one, where for reasons that are not really understood there was a big spike in purchasing quite early on despite the fact that toilet roll is made here in this country and they’re able to expand production very quickly.

"But that is an item where, to ensure the goods remained on the shelves, the supermarkets together took a decision of putting an item limit.

"I think it is best for the retailers to flexibly come together and decide what the appropriate limit is for each item because this is a changing scenario.

"We know from other countries, such as Ireland and France, that once people have stocked up their homes then this surge in demand starts to taper off.

"When that happens the retailers would want to react flexibly to adjust the limits that they put in place."

Responding to the plea, Labour's Shadow Environment Secretary Luke Pollard said: "The Government has been too slow and too quiet on reassuring people that there will be enough food and supplies, and this has contributed to panic-buying and vulnerable people and key workers missing out.

"We are working constructively with the government but its communication on this crucial issue has not been good enough."


The call for shoppers to show restraint was echoed by Ms Dickinson, who heads up the British Retail Consortium and said supermarkets had seen "unprecedented demand" akin to the pre-Christmas surge in just two weeks - but without the usual four-months' of planning.

She said: "There is plenty of food in the supply chain. The issue is around people and lorries - so getting that food right into the frontline onto our shelves, which is why we’ve seen shortages in some areas across lots of different lines in different areas of the country."

Ms Dickinson added: "There is £1bn of more food in peoples' houses than there was three weeks’ ago, so we should make sure we eat some of it.

"And be considerate and also think about other people right across your communities and how we can all help them in making sure that they can pick up and get their shopping."

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