Britain’s biggest supermarkets will warn the government that competition law might need to be suspended to allow them to co-ordinate shopping deliveries if the coronavirus outbreak becomes a pandemic.
Daily Week News has learnt that at least one of the big four grocers – Asda, J Sainsbury, Tesco and Wm Morrison – plans to raise the issue of temporarily waiving rules prohibiting industry collaboration during a conference call with George Eustice, the environment secretary, on Monday afternoon.
Such a waiver would, according to a source close to one of the companies, enable the supermarkets to work together on deliveries in local areas where, for example, one shop had been forced to close because of COVID-19
This need would be particularly pronounced in remote parts of the country where alternative options for shopping would be impossible for customers if they or family members were self-isolating.
Food industry executives are also expected to join Monday’s call.
One insider said that while the competition law issue would be raised, it was not of as immediate importance as relaxing restrictions on driver hours and delivery time-slots.
Lots of concern over availability of key items in shops due to Covid-19. Please do not panic! There are no supply shortages or stock issues from our side.
— Richard Walker (@icelandrichard) March 8, 2020
Some supermarkets are working to provide home delivery services that are well ahead of the typical demand level for this time of year, although it has not yet reached the frenzy seen in the run-up to Christmas.
Discussions between the chains and Mr Eustice were hastily arranged last week after Matt Hancock, the health secretary, sparked a row about whether they were already liaising to ensure that deliveries would reach vulnerable customers.
Any decision to temporarily waive competition law would represent the first time that such a measure had been implemented for decades.
Health bosses call on shoppers to stop panic-buying
Last year, the idea was raised as supermarkets and the food industry grappled with the potential consequences of a no-deal Brexit.
A temporary removal of competition restrictions would require the approval of the Competition and Markets Authority.
Lord Tyrie, the watchdog’s chairman, said last week that it would closely scrutinise retailers’ charging practices during the coronavirus outbreak.
He added that it would assess whether to advise the government to take action to regulate prices.
“We will do whatever we can to act against rip-offs and misleading claims, using any or all of our tools; and where we can’t act, we’ll advise government on further steps they could take, if necessary,” Lord Tyrie said.
It emerged at the weekend that Tesco had started restricting the number of household items that could be purchased by individual customers.
The UK’s biggest retailer has, for example, prevented shoppers from purchasing more than five anti-bacterial products, dried pasta and long-life milk.
Ministers and supermarkets have insisted that there is no need for consumers to “panic buy” items.
There may, however, be changes to online shopping policies implemented if a substantial number of people are required to self-isolate by remaining at home, according to industry sources.
A Defra spokesperson said: “The environment secretary will hold a further call with chief executives from the UK’s leading supermarkets and industry representatives on Monday 9 March to discuss their response to the coronavirus.
“The meeting will discuss support for vulnerable groups who may be in isolation.”
None of the supermarkets contacted on Monday would comment.