Eustice: Government avoided ‘Captain Mainwaring type of approach’

By Michelle Perrett

- Last updated on GMT

The Government elected against telling consumers to pandemic during the pandemic
The Government elected against telling consumers to pandemic during the pandemic

Related tags: coronavirus

The Government avoided saying “don’t panic” as the coronavirus pandemic sparked consumer stockpiling of food, according to George Eustice, secretary of state at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA).

Speaking during the COVID-19 and Food Supply​ investigation of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (EFRA) Select Committee, he said the Government took behavioural advice to take this approach.

Nothing gets panic-buying going better than Government coming out and saying ‘don’t panic’,”​ he said.

“If you want to avoid spurring panic-buying, the best thing is for it not to be talked about and covered at all”.

And he referred to the 1970s BBC TV sitcom Dad’s Army​, where one of the characters was known for shouting “Don’t panic”. “It is a Captain Mainwaring type of approach,”​ he added.

Eustice said the Government had been monitoring the situation from the end of January, but realised it was facing an issue towards the end of February and intervened at the right time.

‘Useful feedback’

He said the panic buying was typical of what other countries had experienced at the start of the pandemic. And food manufacturers with operations abroad were able to provide “useful feedback”. He said he spoke to George Weston, chief executive of Associated British Foods (ABF), who informed him of what was happening in countries such as Italy.

Eustice said its no deal Brexit planning was “dusted off” in order to help deal with the supply chain. This included removing curfew hours on deliveries and easing competition law.

Closer relations between retailers and food manufacturers enabled them to work out a plan, such as rationalising products.

“That sort of streamlining of lines was critical to being able to substantially increase the output of loaves of bread and other such items,”​ he said.  

“It was an extraordinary response right through the supply chain. The relationship between the big manufacturers and the retailers was really phenomenal and enabled them actually very quickly to increase production by about 50% from a standing start.”

On the issue of the guidance given to food manufacturers about safety, he said there were some sector-specific questions that had to be resolved.

“For instance, there were questions that, in some meat plants, it was not possible to maintain a two metre distance,” ​he said. “So, we worked out a way you could be slightly closer than two metres if you faced away from one other. Working out how that can be achieved in practice took a bit of time.

“There were questions, for instance, about what happens with car sharing arrangements, which were quite important to get staff to work. There were questions about canteens.”

Masks

On the issue of masks, he said that companies such as Mondelēz and ABF could not source masks for some of their factories abroad and this actually led to some closures. And it was aware of this when putting together safety guidance.

David Kennedy, director general, food, farming and biosecurity at DEFRA said that while there had been some outbreaks at factories, this should be put into context.

“There are outbreaks and there have been a relatively small number recently you have seen in the news.

“There are four or five factories that have had to be closed and most of those have been voluntarily. I think there was only one of them that was forced to close,”​ he said.

“We are talking about a population of over 5,000 food manufacturers [that each employ] more than 50 workers in England and [account for] 8,000 factories across the UK.”

Call for evidence

The EFRA Select Committee has called for urgent submissions of evidence to allow it to investigate the Government’s response to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the dairy industry. 

It is asking for evidence on how the pandemic affected the dairy industry and dairy farmers and why it needed extra support. It is also looking for information on what impact other actions, such as the relaxation of competition laws, had had and whether the dairy response fund was a proportionate and fair response to the issues faced by dairy farmers.

Chair of the EFRA select committee Neil Parish said: “The dairy industry has been hit hard by the coronavirus lockdown. Our coffee shops and restaurants closed abruptly with a huge knock-on effect on the supply chain. Over the past few months, we have seen demand for milk change dramatically, and prices slashed for many farmers.

“We are determined to find out whether Government interventions made to help dairy farmers have been sufficient and fair, and whether any ongoing issues have been overlooked. So we are seeking evidence from the sector in the coming weeks.”

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