The closure of foodservice and hospitality businesses due to lockdown was a “huge shock for their food and drink suppliers” and the sector might take “over a year” to recover, according to MPs.
In a report the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee called for the UK government to draw up a plan to support suppliers “during this turbulent time”.
“The government should work with producers, processors and wholesalers to understand their concerns and monitor the health of food and drink suppliers, particularly SMEs, over the next 18 months as supply chains restart,” said the report.
MPs said the government and retailers failed to develop an effective joint communications plan in anticipation of the panic buying that took place after lockdown was imposed.
The report said it was “surprising and disappointing” that the government had not taken notice of empty shelves being reported in other countries and taken action.
“Once the crisis hit, government worked well with the retailers to quickly put in place measures to respond,” said MPs.
“However, the government does not appear to have anticipated the situation, despite the experience of other countries. Increased buying was, in our view, not because of ‘panic’ but largely a reasonable and predictable response to the expectation that more meals would need to be eaten at home.
“The government could have made more effort to provide early public reassurance about food supply and should do so in the event of further lockdowns or restrictions.”
The government introduced measures including allowing supermarkets to collaborate, in areas such as data and logistics, to alleviate the pressure on supply chains, which MPs welcomed, but they were concerned about the impact of this policy on the ability of smaller retailers to get supplies.
The report said: “While the relaxation [of competition rules] has helped retailers manage a period of unprecedented demand, the longer the exclusion orders are in place, the greater the risk of detriment to consumers.”
It added: “The government cannot afford to be complacent; even though the supply chain ultimately proved to be resilient, for several weeks shoppers were faced with empty shop shelves and (in effect) rationing of staple goods.
“This disruption largely came from changing patterns of demand caused by government action, which is an unusual situation. Disruptions that reduce the supply of food to the UK, for example because of a disorderly end to the [Brexit] transition period or climate change effects, will pose different, and potentially greater, challenges altogether.”
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