Food retailers have warned the Government that riots and civil disobedience could break out within weeks if production is unable to keep up with surging customer demand.
Producers and distributors are working at full capacity in order to keep sufficient supplies flowing into shops and supermarkets across the country. But representatives from the sector have warned George Eustice, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, that current production can only be maintained for a matter of weeks and they fear for the consequences if supplies start to dry up.
They also fear shop workers could become the target for abuse and even violence from increasingly desperate customers. The Government was asked to consider drafting in the police, and even the military, to ensure lawlessness does not take over.
Food production and distribution has increased by 40 per cent in recent weeks to meet the huge demand as shoppers bulk buy and hoard items.
While the rise in production is similar to the spike seen at Christmas and well within the industry’s capability, such levels can only be maintained for a matter of weeks, according to sources.
Supplies will also be compromised if large numbers of workers from the sector fall ill or need to self-isolate.
Supermarkets are now discussing the possibility of introducing co-ordinated rationing, meaning customers will be limited in the amount of products they can buy at any one time.
But while that policy might protect stocks, it is feared that staff trying to enforce the restrictions could come in for abuse or even violence.
An industry source said: “There is real concern over the safety of shop workers, especially if they are forced to ration items to customers.
“There has already been some unpleasant incidents around the country, but nobody wants to see matters escalate into a situation where there are riots and general civil disobedience.”
An insider involved in talks between the sector and Government said that supply chains remained resilient, but acknowledged the challenge of dealing with surges in demand and shelves emptying.
A government spokesman said: “We are in regular contact with the food industry to ensure it is well prepared to deal with a range of scenarios.
“It’s very important that everybody should behave responsibly and think about others when purchasing food. 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.
“Police are monitoring crime trends and will prioritise resources to where most needed, but there is no intelligence to suggest widespread disorder as a result of coronavirus.”
A spokesman for the British Retail Consortium, said: “Retailers continue to work with police to keep retail sites running as smoothly as possible. Even when circumstances are difficult, retailers are well versed in providing effective security measures.”
Meanwhile, farmers have expressed concern about their ability to get their crops, livestock and other products out of the fields and into the supply chain. Travel restrictions and flight shutdowns are likely to have a major impact on the flow of seasonal workers needed to pick crops across the UK.
In recent days major retailers, including the “big four” supermarkets, have begun imposing restrictions to prevent customers stockpiling. Aldi has taken the most stringent measures, introducing a limit of four items per person across its entire product range.
A number of supermarkets are also understood to be exploring joining Iceland and Lidl in introducing a “silver hour” for elderly shoppers following conversations with the Government. Other measures being included are care packages, with Morrisons announcing it would launch a range of food parcels from next week.
The supermarket is also significantly increasing home delivery, adding 100 additional stores to its service, as well as increasing delivery slots through its website and partner Amazon Prime.
However, Tesco is preparing to cancel 24-hour trading in a bid to cope with panic buying. From today, the supermarket is due to limit opening times for its larger stores to 6am until 10pm. However, some large stores with pharmacies will stay open past 10pm.