Coronavirus: Minister reassures public over food supplies

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SupermarketImage source, Getty Images

Supermarkets have taken "the necessary steps" to ensure shelves remain stocked following the coronavirus outbreak, the environment secretary has said.

George Eustice, who held talks with supermarket and trade bosses on Friday, said he was "reassured" they had "robust plans" to minimise disruption.

It follows concerns the virus could lead to shortages of food and supplies.

On Thursday, Matt Hancock said: "We are working with the supermarkets to make sure that, if people are self-isolating, then we will be able to get the food and supplies that they need."

But supermarket sources said they had not discussed getting food to homes, with one executive saying he was "baffled" by the suggestions.

Mr Eustice said he had spoken to chief executives from leading supermarkets on Friday about their response to the outbreak.

He said they had reassured him they had "well-established contingency plans".

"Retailers are continuing to monitor their supply chains and have robust plans in place to minimise disruption," Mr Eustice said.

The environment secretary also said he would be holding a further meeting with industry figures and public sector organisations to discuss support for vulnerable groups who may be in isolation.

The government and retailers would be working closely together over the coming days and weeks, he added.

'Significant increase' in demand

Andrew Opie, a director of food for the British Retail Consortium, which represents shops across the UK and was involved in talks with ministers this afternoon, said people did not need to panic buy.

He said retailers working with their suppliers had "very sophisticated systems" that they would be using should the outbreak worsen to "really make sure everybody has availability and access to food".

BBC business correspondent Emma Simpson said demand for products had "significantly increased", with one industry source saying sales volumes had reached levels usually seen at Christmas.

She added that the overall message was that the current situation was "manageable" but supply chains were working very hard to keep up.

Andrex sought to reassure customers it had plans in place to ensure a steady supply of toilet paper.

One retailer said there had been a 500% increase in demand for hand wash in the last week, with food cupboard items also among those seeing much higher demand.

It comes as the number of coronavirus cases in the UK jumped by 48 cases since Thursday - the biggest increase in one day - bringing the total to 163.

More than 20,000 people have been tested.

Elsewhere, samples taken from an elderly man who died at Milton Keynes Hospital are currently being investigated for coronavirus.

The BBC understands the man, in his 80s, had underlying health issues but more tests for the virus are ongoing.

The UK's first death linked to the virus came on Thursday, after a woman with underlying health conditions in her 70s died in hospital in Reading.