Government must launch food-rationing scheme, expert warns

By Catherine Wylie, PA

A rationing scheme is needed to see the country through the coronavirus pandemic, a food policy expert has said.

Professor Tim Lang has written to the Prime Minister “out of immediate concern about the emerging food crisis” and in the letter described public messaging about food supply as “weak and unconvincing”.

He also criticised the Government for “blaming” consumers who are going out to buy groceries to last a few days.

The retail industry has insisted there is enough food for everyone and ministers have said rationing is unnecessary, but customers have been faced with empty shelves and have struggled to get everything on their shopping lists.

Environment Secretary George Eustice has said there is no shortage of food in the country, with manufacturers having increased production by 50%.

But in a letter to Boris Johnson, dated March 20, experts including Prof Lang, a professor of food policy at City, University of London, called on the Government to “initiate a health-based food-rationing scheme to see the country through this crisis”.

The letter says: “This should start from Public Health England’s Eatwell Plate, our official nutrition guidelines, and draw on expertise from the devolved administrations, and relevant disciplines.”

The professor’s letter calls on the Government to: “Announce immediately that this new Food Rationing Scheme will be open, equitable and based on health needs, taking account of age, income, and vulnerability, and that this will be applied UK-wide.”

The experts are also calling on the Government to “rapidly review options for ensuring people on low incomes have sufficient money to buy a decent diet”, and suggested a national voucher scheme redeemable for nutritionally sound purchases such as fruit and vegetables.

Empty shelves in a Tesco Extra store in Worthing, West Sussex (Michael Drummond/PA)

Prof Lang told the PA news agency the current situation facing the country is “Brexit times 20”, and criticised the Government for blaming the public “when they buy food”, suggesting that the term “stock-piling” is being used incorrectly.

“Stock-piling means you get enough food for six months or a year,” he said.

Prof Lang said it is “an entirely understandable situation” that people are turning to supermarkets more in light of cafes and restaurants being closed.

He said it is “unacceptable” to blame the consumer, adding: “This is unacceptable. This is not the way to treat the public in a good way.”

Prof Lang said a “very difficult period” is ahead, adding: “We’ve got to do demand management, not just blame people when they start getting three days or a week’s food supply.

“That’s nothing. Nothing. In my childhood, that’s what everyone did.”

He said there needs to be a public food committee which “addresses the interest of the public”, adding: “What is being exposed is the lack of devolved regional and local food engagement.”

He added: “We’re in a bad place, to be stark with you.”

Prof Lang said the public are beginning to “act rationally in some respects” by “stocking up a little bit”, adding: “They’re doing what we used to call a larder.”

He added: “The public is absolutely understandable to act in a fearful way. The way to deal with food fears in these circumstances is not to start blaming them.

“It’s stupid. Absolutely stupid.”

Meanwhile, Allergy UK said it is very aware of the impact of “bulk buying” on people who need “free-from” products.

The charity said: “We have highlighted this issue through all our communication channels and are working together with other partners to bring this to the attention of government departments and agencies on the basis of the needs of people living with food allergy and its potential status as an ‘underlying condition’.

“We are also contacting all the major supermarkets directly to bring this to their attention and ask what action can be taken.”

Elsewhere, shopworkers trade union Usdaw welcomed Morrisons agreeing to new safety measures, including perspex screens, to help protect checkout operators.

Paddy Lillis, Usdaw general secretary, said: “We have increasing concerns about the safety and welfare of staff in stores.

“The scenes in stores over the weekend and behaviour of some customers mean that supermarkets need to go further to protect the health, safety and welfare of shopworkers.”

On the high street, health and beauty retailers have removed product testers.

A spokeswoman for Superdrug said: “We have taken the decision to remove all product testers from stores for the foreseeable future as part of our commitment to ensuring the highest standard of safety and hygiene for our customers and colleagues.

“We will continue to monitor the situation, in line with Government, PHE and NHS guidance around Covid-19.”