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Coronavirus: Can you stop people stockpiling?

A woman reaches for toilet paperImage copyright Getty Images

Around the UK, shoppers are emptying shelves of toilet paper, pasta, hand sanitiser and tinned foods as fears grow over the spread of the coronavirus.

A government minister has said there is “no need” for stockpiling, but can panic-buying be controlled?

How many people are panic-buying?

It is hard to say, but research by BBC Radio 4’s PM programme found that one in three people is concerned about having access to enough food if they have to self-isolate.

And those worries have already led to apparent shortages. Shoppers from around the country have sent the BBC photos of bare supermarket shelves where they live.

Social media is also full of reports of empty shop shelves, and some supermarkets have begun restricting the sale of certain goods.

Similar scenes have also been seen in other countries such as Australia and the USA.

What can the government do?

This is a new situation, so the government’s powers to deal with it are so far untested, according to Paul Dobson, from the University of East Anglia.

But he said he expected the government would speak to supermarkets to secure a series of voluntary agreements on issues around supply, and limiting panic buying.

“The government could have quite a useful co-ordinating role, and I think that’s what’s needed in the market to produce some stability,” he said.

And that appears to be the approach that the government is taking.

“The environment secretary will hold a further call with chief executives from the UK’s leading supermarkets and industry representatives on Monday to discuss their response to the coronavirus,” a Department for the Environment spokeswoman.

“The meeting will discuss support for vulnerable groups who may be in isolation.”

What are shops doing?

The response from retailers has varied dramatically.

Several shops have introduced sales restrictions on certain items, to avoid selling out completely.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption There were empty shelves at a Waitrose in Sheffield

For example, at Tesco, shoppers are limited to buying no more than five of certain goods, including anti-bacterial gels, wipes and sprays, dry pasta, UHT milk and some tinned vegetables.

Meanwhile, Waitrose has brought in a temporary cap on some items on its website, including some anti-bacterial soaps and wipes.

Boots and Asda are both restricting some types of hand sanitiser to two bottles per person.

But Sainsbury’s has still not limited any purchases.

When will products be back on the shelves?

“Whilst there might be empty shelves at the moment in the shops, over the next week or so, we will see them replenish,” Dr Andrew Potter, from Cardiff Business School, told the BBC.

“The supply chain will start to deliver stuff through to the stores and hopefully this shortage – which is fairly short term – will clear and everything will be back to normal again.”

Jan Godsell, from the University of Warwick, also said that the initial spike in demand is likely to be short-lived.

She said people bought items like toilet paper and pasta to stockpile but then were likely to stop buying.

Image caption Australian stores have seen a mad rush for toilet paper

She said the “unknown” was labour, questioning what would happen if 20% of the workforce was taken ill, a situation the government has factored into its plans.

“Then we might need to make some decisions about where in our supply chain we use those [people],” she said.

Watchdog the Competition and Markets Authority has warned retailers not to “exploit” fears about coronavirus by dramatically increasing the price of protective goods like hand gels and face masks.

Why are people rushing to buy?

On parenting website Mumsnet, several people have admitted to panic buying, in case they have to spend two weeks at home in self-isolation.

“I’m a prepper! It’s all things we’d normally use. Having a few extra, that I’ve been buying for a while, will mean not having to buy it for a while once this blows over,” said one user.

Another said it was other panic-buyers that had persuaded her to take action.



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