In an appeal to the public, the British Retail Consortium has pleaded with customers not to buy more than they would typically need, with the reassurance that “there is enough for everyone if we all work together”. The internet has recently been overrun with photos of countless bare supermarket shelves and videos of people waiting in endless queues for shop doors to open. Panic buying has swept across the country, and scarcity has become a new symptom of the coronavirus pandemic. Whilst initially essential goods such as non-perishable foods and health supplies quickly flew off the shelves, supermarket chains are now dealing with a limited supply of almost every type of item. Hoarding has only encouraged further hoarding, and the sight of empty shelves only induces greater panic in people. 

However, panic buying is, as a means of preventing the individual impact of scarcity, inescapably, a luxury – and one which will hold lasting consequences in the weeks to come. For those who are at high risk from the virus, such as the elderly and those with pre-existing health conditions, stockpiling has only made them more vulnerable. Food banks across the country are also facing pressures as a result of mass hoarding, with many reporting a decrease in essential non-perishable goods such as pasta, rice, and long-lasting milk. Islington Foodbank in North London was the first centre to announce last week that it would be closed to the public from 23rd March. With a reduction in donations and volunteer numbers (35% of whom are aged 65 and over, as the Trussell Trust confirmed), their ability to function has been severely impacted. The risk that closures such as this may continue across the country presents a real threat as to how this pandemic may exacerbate food poverty already rife in Britain.

The uncertainty caused by an increase in those self-isolating and the government’s encouragement to stay at home and perform social distancing only reveals the  unsustainability of the current food aid system as a permanent method for tackling hunger. Regardless of the current pressures, food bank usage has seen a dramatic incline. According to figures collected by the Trussell Trust, food banks have given out over 800,000 food parcels between April and September 2019, the highest number since they firststarted collecting data in 2014. The levels of food insecurity pre-pandemic were already so high that last year that the Environmental Audit Committee suggested introducing a Minister for Hunger to ensure the government’s response to food poverty as a national issue. Food aid and charitable endeavours have already been facing the struggle to combat the food poverty caused by long wait times for benefits. With the demand on food banks on a consistent incline, the recent reduction in donations and general limitation of supplies means the strain these centres are facing will only grow in the coming weeks.

There is never an opportune moment for a pandemic; the developments in COVID-19 means systems will inevitably be stretched. But the strain food banks are facing as a result of panicked stockpiling will have a severe impact on the thousands they intend to help. The recent announcement of school closures (and the inability of many to work as a result) means emergency food aid will have to prepare for unprecedented levels of demand. With no clear end date for social distancing, for the families that will be using food banks to get by over the next few weeks, hoarding food is a total impossibility.

Food parcels provided by centres under the Trussell Trust are intended to last a minimum of three days and provide people with ingredients for meals which are non-perishable and nutritionally balanced. The security net of hoarding supplies is not a functional part of food aid, and public efforts to stockpile only makes charitable efforts to combat food poverty more vulnerable. Supermarket chains have made an effort to combat the effects of stockpiling and reduce scarcity. Sainsbury’s and Asda have recently announced that they will prevent customers buying more than three of each food item. Sainsbury’s has also promised to prioritise vulnerable and elderly customers with its online deliveries, and numerous supermarkets have designated early shopping hours to senior citizens to allow them to get the items they require.

In unprecedented and uncertain circumstances, anxiety, even fear, is natural. The possibility that under quarantine people may struggle to access food and other necessities is undeniably sinister. But in panic, inevitably the most vulnerable come last. Food banks and voluntary aid centres rely on charity and public donation, leaving them liable to bear the brunt of shortages when they do set in. As the public continue to clean up the shelves of supermarkets and buy goods regardless of need, the act of panic buying reveals itself as an act of indulgence, not necessity.