Entire towns were said to be running low on lavatory paper on Monday night as the Prime Minister urged the public to stop panic buying and “shop responsibly”.
Ministers agreed a deal to allow shops to take emergency night-time deliveries after shelves in some areas were emptied of key household goods.
Supermarkets called for customers to “be kind” amid fears that vulnerable and elderly people might be left without essential items including lavatory paper, tinned food and hand sanitiser.
In the Suffolk town of Sudbury, the local tourism board warned residents of “low supplies of toilet roll at Waitrose, Tesco and Sainsbury’s in the town today”.
“Please think of others when heading off shopping. Unnecessary stockpiling is impacting on others,” a Visit Sudbury spokesman said. “Thanks to retail colleagues across the town for managing this very odd situation.”
In other parts of Britain, shoppers complained on social media that they had searched for lavatory paper in their local areas without success. Others said they had ordered it online but were told upon delivery that supplies had run out.
Pictures emerged of panic buyers piling shopping trolleys with multipacks, leaving supermarket shelves empty.
A source at Tesco admitted that some delivery centres were running low on lavatory paper and other goods but added that they would be restocked soon. Other major supermarkets refused to comment.
Meanwhile, hotels threatened to begin rationing lavatory paper in response to a surge in thefts.
Kit Chapman, the proprietor of the Castle Hotel in Taunton, Somerset, wrote: “Over the past 24 hours, housekeepers (at the hotel) have reported 17 loo rolls stolen.” A spokesman for the hotel added: “If this problem is not contained, we may have to ration supplies to our guests.”
Panic buyers are thought to be concerned that a long spell of self isolation could lead to households running out of food and essential items. Tesco has already limited the sale of goods such as pasta and long-life milk, while a number of major stores have restricted the sales of hand sanitiser.
But during a Downing Street press conference, Boris Johnson sought to calm fears that a mass outbreak of coronavirus could leave Britain running low on supplies.
“We’re certainly confident we have fantastic supply chains,” Mr Johnson said. “In terms of preparations and where the public is, it’s very very important that people should shop responsibly and think about others.”
Meanwhile, the government announced that it would work with local authorities to extend the hours in which deliveries can be made to supermarkets and other food retailers to help the industry respond to the crisis.
The new measures would relax night-time curfews, allowing food retailers to replenish their shelves more quickly. Supermarkets are also understood to have asked ministers to relax competition rules to allow major retailers to co-ordinate deliveries if the crisis deepens.
“This isn’t the first time we’ve gone through something like this – we’ve had swine flu, we’ve had Sars, even weather-related stuff like the Beast from the East,” said Aodhan Connolly, of the British Retail Consortium.
“This is one of those cases where we have to ask people to think about others. We’re asking people to be kind, telling people that the supply chains are still good and asking them to buy responsibly.”
George Eustice, the Environment Secretary, said: “By allowing night-time deliveries to our supermarkets and food retailers, we can free them up to move their stocks more quickly from their warehouses to their shelves.
“Our retailers have well-established contingency plans in place and are taking all the necessary steps to ensure consumers have the food and supplies they need.”