Farming News - Government unprepared for COVID-19 disruptions to food supply chains

Government unprepared for COVID-19 disruptions to food supply chains

30 Jul 2020
Frontdesk / Finance

Disruptions to food supply and unprecedented consumer demand at the start of the COVID-19 outbreak was seen in other countries before reaching the UK. Given this, the EFRA Committee’s new COVID-19 and Food Supply report questions why the Government appeared unprepared for the impact of hospitality business closures on food and drink suppliers, and the possibility of empty shelves in supermarkets.  

Although the report concludes that in many areas Defra’s response to food supply disruptions was largely commendable, it lays out a series of lessons the Government must learn, particularly in relation to the foodservice and food supply sectors. 

  • The report finds the Government was too slow to provide guidance for key workers in the food supply sector, including in relation to the use of PPE and implementation of social distancing measures.  The cross-party group of MPs commends the industry for rapidly developing guidance in the vacuum left by Government, and urges Government to ensure that in any future disruption, guidance can be issued more rapidly
  • Detailing the knock-on effect of hospitality sector closures on the entire food supply chain, the report calls on the Government to closely monitor food and drink suppliers over the next 18 months. Noting that the industry may struggle well into next year, the MPs urge Government to ensure previously thriving hospitality and foodservice businesses remain economically viable. 
  • The Committee calls on the Government to continue to fund the £5 million a year FareShare project to redistribute otherwise wasted food from farmgate to frontline community groups. With use of UK foodbanks almost doubling during lockdown, the report recognises food insecurity and food waste as significant problems, widespread throughout the UK even before the pandemic. The Committee therefore demands that the Government appoints a new cross-departmental Minister for Food Security who would collect robust data and implement sustainable change. 
  • The report finds that cross-border movement of food kept the country well supplied, despite empty shelves in supermarkets. Warning that future crises that affect how much food comes into the country, such as a disorderly end to the transition period or climate change effects, will pose potentially greater challenges. The Committee calls on the Government to review resilience plans for the food sector, assessing the extent to which our dependence on multi-national, just-in-time supply chains affects resilience.

Neil Parish MP, Chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee, said: 

"Despite warnings from other countries, it seemed as though the Government was constantly playing catch-up in trying to support the food industry during this crisis. The Government’s actions to lock-down the country and close businesses were necessary, but they had huge impacts on the food supply chain. I unreservedly thank all the key workers for their essential role in keeping the nation fed during this time. 

“Once the pandemic set in, Defra responded well. However, there were misunderstandings in Government about where - and how - people were going to get their food just before and during lockdown. Rather than “panic”, it was entirely reasonable that many people would be buying much more food in shops and online. Excluding convenience stores and discount retailers from the national voucher scheme for free school meals also showed a significant misunderstanding of where families need to shop.  

“Food banks and other food redistribution organisations have reacted heroically to a disturbing spike in demand for food aid, but this problem is likely to get worse before it gets better. At the same time, and shockingly, millions of tonnes of food are wasted every year in this country. The Government must continue to fund efforts to redistribute surplus food at the farmgate to those who need it.” 

The report scrutinises the Government's response to turbulence in the food supply chain during the first months of the COVID-19 pandemic, laying out a series of lessons that must be learned and measures to be implemented before a possible second wave this winter, or in the case of local lockdowns. It concludes that although Government was able to support the food supply chain well, significant oversights were made, including the exclusion of convenience stores and discount retailers from the free school meal voucher scheme. 

Key recommendations of the COVID-19 and Food Supply Report: 

  • In the event of a potential second wave, communication regarding food supply in shops should be clearer between Government departments and between Government and the public. 
  • The Free School Meal voucher scheme should be made more flexible to consider the realities of families dependent on free school meals, and should recognise the importance of community-led responses. 
  • Anticipating the end of the transition period, food supply disruptions, including the impacts of consumer behaviour, must be urgently factored into contingency planning.
  • Consideration for people with disabilities and other vulnerabilities must be built into the Government's emergency planning, so that future crises do not disproportionately impact certain disadvantaged groups.
  • The Government should consult on whether the 'Right to Food' should be given a legislative footing. Not only must the Government respond to the upcoming National Food Strategy within six months, but the Agriculture Bill should be amended so that food security assessments occur annually, rather than every five years as proposed.