Supermarkets ration goods as government holds talks over 'panic buying'

Tom Belger
Finance and policy reporter
A shortage of UHT long life milk on the shelves at a Sainsbury's supermarket in Cambridge, England. (Joe Giddens/PA)

UK retailers are limiting sales of in-demand products and holding crisis talks with government, as a growing number of consumers stockpile cleaning products and long-life food and drink.

Food and environment minister George Eustice will hold further discussions with retail and other business leaders on Monday. They had already met on Friday amid supply chain disruption and soaring demand for certain goods because of the coronavirus outbreak.

Culture minister Oliver Dowden also sought to reassure the public the government was “confident” supermarkets could keep shelves stocked. “There is absolutely no need for anybody to stockpile,” he told BBC Breakfast on Monday.

It comes as some retailers moved to ration certain products over the weekend as images of empty shelves for toilet roll, pasta and hand sanitiser have flooded social media. One survey last month suggests one in 10 households had done some stockpiling.

Read more: The psychology and economic fallout of panic buying

Britain’s biggest supermarket Tesco (TSCO.L) placed a five-item cap on products including antibacterial wipes, hand gels and long-life milk. Its website shows the majority of its pasta lines have sold out online, with buyers told the items are “currently unavailable.”

Waitrose also placed restrictions on sales of anti-bacterial soaps and wipes in the past few days. Asda and several pharmacy chains had already restricted the number of hand sanitiser items per person across the UK.

The UK now has 280 confirmed cases of COVID-19, and three deaths in hospitals. Dowden also said on Monday that cancelling sports events and shutting venues like museums would be “premature.”

“There’s no reason for people either not to attend such events or to cancel them at this stage, but we keep it under review,” he said.