Coronavirus: Stockpiling continues in the UK despite government calls

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If you live in London, it’s a hard time for toilet roll hunters. For a couple of weeks now, toilet paper has become the favoured prey of seemingly uncontrollable hoards of irrational stockpilers in the country, leaving many supermarkets in a daily apocalypse-like situation of decimated shelves.

“Toilet roll was the first to go” Tariq seems to confirm, a shelf stacker in a medium-size supermarket in North London, who declined to give his full name. “Then it was pasta that disappeared, followed by canned tuna and baked beans. Now it’s bread, and veg, they sell out before midday”, he recalls. “Once I saw a woman with twelve jars of mayonnaise at the checkout. It’d be funny, if it wasn’t tragic” he says, smiling uncomfortably.

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However you see it, the problem is real. Some very basic goods such as pasta, bread or flour have been missing from many shelves for a week or more now - and not because of a fault in the supply chain. As a consequence, some people’s panic-buying is starting to hit those who cannot work around supermarkets’ peak times or make their way through the crush hard: frontline health workers, and elderly people.

So much so, that many supermarkets have started to autonomously introduce limits on the how many basic goods can be bought per customer, while reserving the first hours of the day for NHS workers and elderly people. On Saturday the government was forced to address the population, as the Environment Secretary George Eustice repeatedly asked the public to “be responsible” when shopping, and to “think of others”.

He was unheard: as of Tuesday, many supermarkets’ shelves continue to gather dust, while other small green-grocers pump up the prices of those same goods now scarce on the market.

“Hoarding is not just a massive failure at a societal level, it’s also costly in human terms” explains Dr. Matteo M. Galizzi, Associate Professor of Behavioural Science at London School of Economics. “It is disproportionately harmful because it impacts the weakest and the most essential workers at this time” he confirms.

According to him, mass stockpiling of essentials is a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy: seeing people - on social media, for instance - panic buying for the ‘crisis-period’, more and more tend to follow suit, until a crisis will be brought about on the supply chain side. In other words, empty shelves beget more empty shelves.

“On paper, there is a simple and very effective solution to stop people irrationally over-buying” continues Dr. Galizzi, “Public intervention. Limiting the quantity of certain goods an individual can buy”.

Rationing, in a word. But the implementation of this measure would incur a high political cost - something the British government does not seem willing to pay in the near future.

“I think the main problem has been the lack of direct, clear and simple communication about the situation here in the UK”, Dr. Galizzi concludes. “The public can understand simple information and it is able to transform this into tangible change”. Information which has been shared in an unclear and sometimes contradictory way, so far.

“People need easy rules to follow. When the government says ‘Buy only what you need’, what does this even mean, in practical terms?”

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