Rival supermarket chains could be allowed to cooperate with each other over keeping a minimum number of shops open in every area in the event of staff shortages at the height of the coronavirus outbreak.
George Eustice, the Environment and Food Secretary, is examining proposals to relax competition laws in order to permit retailers to liaise to ensure “adequate coverage” across the country if they are faced with widespread staff absences.
The move has been requested by retail chiefs who fear they may be forced to close stores and cut opening hours at the height of the crisis. There are also plans for firms to share distribution depots and delivery vans to cope. Both sets of proposals are likely to be discussed in a meeting between Mr Eustice and supermarket chief executives tomorrow.
The disclosure comes as Ocado, the online retailer, stopped taking new customers as its app and website crashed amid demand from shoppers and both Aldi and Sainsbury’s introduced restrictions on the amount of items customers can buy at any one time.
But shoppers were today urged to shop responsible and “be considerate” when stocking up, so that more vulnerable sections of the community do not miss out on vital supplies.
In a joint appeal to consumers British Retail Consortium members stated: “We understand your concerns, but buying more than is needed can sometimes mean that others will be left without.
“There is enough for everyone if we all work together. Together we can make sure we are looking out for family, friends, neighbours.
“Together we will care for those around us and those who are elderly, vulnerable or choosing to remain at home.”
The move follows reports of panic buying, with shelves in some locations stripped of pasta, bread, tinned food, rice, toilet rolls and other essentials as shoppers anticipate having to stay indoors for long periods.
The BRC, which represents 80 per cent of the grocery market, is understood to have asked the Government to relax competition laws to allow rival supermarket chains to cooperate so that each area has sufficient “coverage”, during the peak of the outbreak, which experts have said could be up to 14 weeks away.
Planning documents prepared by the BRC in anticipation of a pandemic in Britain show that as an outbreak reaches its peak large numbers of staff would be expected to be off sick, with others forced to stay at home to look after their children if schools are ordered to shut.
That would inevitably result in retailers having to close branches around the country.
One document, Pandemic Flu Planning in the Retail Sector, states: “Retailers will be managing their stores to minimise the impact to keep access to food stores. They will use available staff to keep as many stores open for the maximum period but at this stage some store closures are likely and many stores will review their opening hours on a daily basis.”
It adds: “In extreme cases where a number of stores are closing, retailers have agreed to liaise
closely with each other to ensure the stores they keep open ensure adequate coverage. Distribution will be prioritised to ensure the supply of essential goods.
“Although we do not anticipate major food shortages, choice will be much more limited and the main problem will be sufficient staff to safely operate the stores, especially given the likelihood of school closures.”
The planning document goes on to state that rationing may need to be introduced, with retailers limiting bulk purchases.
It adds that by the peak of the pandemic, when staff numbers are significantly reduced due to sickness, “the stores will concentrate on getting essential products on the shelves for sale”.
The Competition Act 1998 prohibits anti-competitive behaviour, including agreements between businesses that “prevent, restrict or distort competition”.
However, there is a mechanism in the act allowing the Secretary of State to suspend this prohibition for “exceptional and compelling reasons”.
This happened during the 2012 fuel crisis to allow for the continued distribution of petrol and oil around the country.
Helen Dickinson, chief executive of the British Retail Consortium, said: “Retailers are working incredibly hard to keep shops well stocked and deliveries running as smoothly as possible.”
Ocado’s app and website both crashed on Saturday due to overwhelming demand, with the retailer refusing to accept new customers until further notice.
Mr Eustice has already relaxed restrictions on the hours that deliveries can be made to supermarkets and other food retailers.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said ministers and officials were in regular contact with the food industry to ensure it is well prepared and that retailers were continuing to monitor supply chains and “taking all the necessary steps” to ensure consumers have the food and supplies they need.
A Government spokesman added: “We’ve introduced new measures to make sure businesses can continue to keep food supply flowing, such as extending delivery hours to supermarkets to ensure shelves can be replenished more quickly. Representatives of our leading supermarkets have provided reassurance there is plenty of stock available.”