6 Apr 2020

Coronavirus: everything you need to know about food shopping

All your questions answered – from online deliveries, to the risk of getting coronavirus from food packaging.

Can I get priority when I go shopping?

Some supermarkets are providing a priority service for certain people who shop in-store. The exact details will vary from shop to shop, but generally this is for elderly and vulnerable people, or for NHS staff.

For instance, Tesco says most of its stores will be “prioritising the elderly and most vulnerable for one hour between 9am and 10am every Monday, Wednesday and Friday”.

Sainsbury’s also has a dedicated hour on the same days, between 8am and 9am, for “elderly customers, disabled customers and their carers”. Plus, on every day except Sundays, the Sainsbury’s stores will open half an hour early for NHS and social care workers.

Similar policies have been introduced in other supermarkets too, like Asda and Waitrose. In certain places, some people may be asked for ID to prove they are eligible.

Should I order online?

In normal times, home deliveries only account for about 8% of all food sales by major supermarkets. But with so many people trying to self-isolate, the demand has surged.

In his address to the nation last month, Boris Johnson called on people to “use food delivery services where you can”.

However, many supermarkets have directly contradicted the prime minister’s advice (provided you are not vulnerable or living with someone who is).

For instance, the managing director of Iceland Foods said: “I would urge the opposite of the PM. If you are healthy, not in a vulnerable category and adhere to social distancing guidelines, please do shop in-store.”

FactCheck contacted all of the UK’s major supermarkets, who all echoed this advice. A spokesperson from the British Retail Consortium (BRC), told us: “Physical stores will remain the most important way of getting food.”

Supermarkets say they have now become a lot safer, thanks to new policies designed to stop the spread of coronavirus. Many shops have put limits on the number of people who can enter at once, and have installed safety screens at checkouts.

So if you are young, fit and healthy, then they strongly encourage you to shop in-store.

Nevertheless, the new lockdown law means you should only go shopping for “basic necessities” like food and medicine – and you should do this “as infrequent[ly] as possible”.

Whenever you’re out of your house, everyone is told to stay at least two metres away from anyone who you don’t live with – and try to minimise the time spent outside your home.

How can I get a home delivery slot?

For many people, this could remain tricky for a while, because demand is so high. But supermarkets are expanding the service – and introducing steps to help elderly and vulnerable people get food deliveries.

For instance, Tesco told us it would prioritise orders for hundreds of thousands of people who have been identified as particularly vulnerable and who don’t have their own support network. Tesco said it will contact these people by email as they receive the list.

Waitrose says: “We’ve committed at least 25% of our orders to elderly and vulnerable customers, who we’re in the process of contacting to offer slots.”

And Sainsbury’s has set up a hotline for elderly and certain very vulnerable people – 0800 953 4988. If you are eligible, they say they’ll try to give you “access to priority home delivery slots”.

The British Retail Consortium told us that most other supermarkets are also putting various measures in place to try to prioritise people. But it said there isn’t a single set way of doing this. Nor are there any industry-wide guarantees.

It’s worth noting that some of the supermarket priority schemes are only meant for certain people – such as people with specific medical conditions, or the over 70s. If you don’t fall into any of these categories, but still need a home delivery, it may be trickier to book a slot. For instance, some people may not have transport to travel to a shop.

Unfortunately, most supermarkets are unable to guarantee delivery slots – but most shops are quickly expanding their home delivery services. So they hope that booking a slot will become easier.

For instance, Tesco told us it had expanded its Home Delivery and Click & Collect service to around 780,000 slots last week – up from 660,000 slots three weeks ago. And the number of delivery slots is set to increase again by another 100,000 in the coming weeks. Tesco has also added more than 200 new vans and recruited another 2,500 drivers.

Waitrose says its delivery capacity will reach 20% extra compared to usual, by this week. And Morrisons plans to increase the number of regular online deliveries by 60% by the end of April.

Meanwhile, Sainsbury’s says that it’s providing an additional 8,000 customers every day with access to delivery slots over the phone.

It is also possible the demand for home deliveries may reduce slightly in the coming weeks, as people settle into new routines involved with the coronavirus lockdown. Sales were up by 20.6% last month, but supermarkets say that customer behaviour is already starting to stabilise.

However, Supermarkets hope that most healthy shoppers will continue to buy food in-store. This will free-up delivery slots for more vulnerable people.

What if the shops are out of stock?

In the last few weeks, supermarkets have been selling out of essential items like dried pasta and toilet roll.

It’s not just the shops themselves; some customers have found that Home Deliveries have arrived at their door with key items missing.

We asked eight of the UK’s biggest supermarkets why they could not guarantee that customers would get the items they’d bought online – but not a single supermarket answered our question directly. Instead, they simply reiterated that they are working as hard as they can to increase capacity.

However, they are positive about increasing stock supplies. The British Retail Consortium, said: “The unprecedented demand for food and other essentials in the last two weeks has significantly eased and consumers will have seen shelves restocked in their local shops.”

Meanwhile, Tesco is processing up to double the normal amounts of milk, bread, rice and pasta. It has also simplified it’s range of brands, to maximise the quantities that can be produced. Tesco stores which have an online grocery operation will also open their doors slightly later, to give staff more time to pick online orders.

Can I get a food parcel?

If the government deems you to be “extremely vulnerable” then you may be entitled to a free food parcel.

However, because of devolution, authorities in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have each come up with their own definition of what “extremely vulnerable” actually means. On the whole, it covers those with particular serious medical issues. But it varies across the UK.

For instance, in Northern Ireland people over the age of 70 will automatically qualify for a food parcel – even if they have no medical problems. But that doesn’t appear to be the case anywhere else in the UK.

Likewise, children with significant heart disease are deemed “extremely vulnerable” in Wales, but not in England.

The criteria are listed online for England, Wales and Northern Ireland. We cannot find any list of criteria on the Scottish government’s website, but a list sent to FactCheck appears to be very similar to the English rules.

In some parts of the UK, food parcels may also be available to certain people who are not considered medically vulnerable. The government in Northern Ireland, for example, says that parcels will be available for people in food poverty.

Across the UK, people who are considered “extremely vulnerable” should receive a letter from their GP, or someone from the NHS. If you haven’t had a letter, but believe you may be eligible, you can contact your GP to ask about it. In England people can also apply online. And in Northern Ireland, you can phone an advice hotline: 0808 802 0020.

The government has said it is “working quickly to support people who do not fall into the category of being clinically vulnerable, but still need help getting essential food supplies”. But it’s not yet clear what support will be provided if you don’t tick one of these boxes.

However, it’s worth noting that the UK government does not expect that the majority of eligible people will actually take up the food parcel offer.

Other options

Supermarkets have understandably been at the centre of efforts to ensure people get the food they need. But there are also other options.

Firstly, it’s worth remembering that big supermarkets are not the only shops. Smaller local shops may have good supplies – and some might offer home delivery services.

There are also more than 3,000 community support groups across the country – including many set up specially to help people get food and medicine during the coronavirus crisis. Many of these groups (although not all) are listed on a dedicated website, which allows you to search for help locally by typing in your postcode.

For people in Northern Ireland, this website also lists dozens of other groups, and an advice hotline has been set up: 0808 802 0020.

Certain charities may be able to help as well, such as the Trussell Trust food bank network which is providing emergency food support. Age UK have also set up a hotline for information and advice: 0800 169 65 65.

The government is encouraging people who are self-isolating to “ask friends or relatives” for help where possible. And it warns: “Make sure you tell delivery drivers to leave items outside for collection if you order online. The delivery driver should not come into your home.”

On Twitter, some are also encouraging people to be careful when handing money over to friends and strangers.

Can I get coronavirus from food?

Experts say the risk is very low. After all, we know that similar viruses get killed when you cook them, because of the heat.

We asked the Food Standards Agency if the risk could be higher with cold food. They didn’t say whether the risk was higher – but they told us that no extra advice had been issued specifically about cold food.

But some local councils have warned residents to be vigilant around “open” food, such as fresh bread that isn’t sealed in a plastic package. One council says: “It is possible that infected food workers and/or consumers could introduce the virus to food, by coughing and sneezing.”

Other councils have told restaurant take-away businesses to cook the food thoroughly – to “at least 75°C in the middle of the thickest part”.  This is not specifically mentioned in the official government advice for food businesses – but it’s consistent with the knowledge that high temperatures will kill viruses.

However, experts agree that the main way to avoid catching the virus from food is by following normal safety advice. This includes making sure that you thoroughly wash things like chopping boards and utensils. The UK Food Standards Agency has advice on its website about how to safely cook  and clean in your kitchen. And the standard advice for how to wash fruit and vegetables properly still applies.

People are also being encouraged to try and minimise the amount they touch their food while eating, by using cutlery or other utensils.

Plus, the government is advising everyone to wash their hands regularly throughout the day, with soap for 20 seconds. That includes washing them before and after you eat – and when you prepare food.

The government is also urging everyone to cover their coughs and sneezes with a disposable tissue (or, if you don’t have one, sneeze into the crook of your elbow – not your hand).

And the government has published guidance for how to clean effectively in the kitchen and the rest of the house.

Under the new lockdown rules, most people should not be eating with anyone who is not part of their own household. And there is extra advice available if someone in your house has coronavirus.

If you are a key worker and you have to eat outside your own home, you’re advised to stay at least two metres (six feet) apart from anyone who’s not a member of your own household. This applies at all times – even when you’re not eating.

Can I get coronavirus from food packaging?

In theory, yes. But the government says the risk is low.

Scientists are still researching how long the virus can survive in different conditions. But an academic study published in March found that the longest the virus survived on any surface was three days. And certainly, experts suggest, it is very unlikely that a functioning virus could survive after four days.

The amount of time they survive partly depends on what material the surface is made from. For instance, no functional virus was found after 24 hours on cardboard. But it can survive longer on plastic and stainless steel – especially if the virus is encased in water or saliva.

Scientists also believe the amount of “functional” virus decreases on surfaces over time. So even if it’s still present after three days, it’s likely to be less infectious than the surface was to begin with.

So, should you clean food packaging?

The government says the risk of getting coronavirus from packaging is low, particularly if the package has been “moved, travelled, and exposed to different conditions and temperature”.

The Food Standards Agency (FSA) always tells shops and food businesses to clean the packaging, “in line with usual food safety practices”. But this has always been standard advice for the food industry, and is not specifically about coronavirus.

And the FSA does not extend this advice to ordinary consumers. However, it says that people should wash their hands after handling packaging, following the NHS handwashing advice.

How can I stockpile with item limits?

Many supermarkets have introduced limits to the number of items you can buy at once – especially for essentials like toilet roll and pasta.

On the whole, this should ease the pressure on suppliers – and prevent supermarkets from selling out as much.

However, some elderly or vulnerable people are self-isolating for many weeks. And others want enough food in the house to last a couple of weeks in case they get coronavirus.

Some say that these restrictions could make it harder for people who need to bulk-buy for isolation.

FactCheck put this point to all the main supermarkets, but none of them acknowledged this problem. Tesco simply said that its store-wide limit of three items per customer on every product remains in place. And BRC said that other supermarkets were now easing their product limitations.

Are people panic-buying?

Politicians and supermarket bosses have called on people to “stop panic buying”. Boris Johnson has urged people to be “considerate in the way they shop”, while Health Secretary Matt Hancock said “people have got to behave responsibly”.

But despite the headlines, there is actually no evidence of widespread panic-buying. The figures available suggest the vast majority of people are not being selfish or irresponsible.

Market data provider Kantar says the average household spent £63 more than usual in the four weeks to March 22.

Kantar says that only a minority of people had been “engaging in what might traditionally be thought of as stockpiling”. For example, only 3% of people who bought pasta took home “extraordinary quantities”.

Instead, the evidence suggests that shortages have mainly been caused by lots of customers simply “adding a few extra products each time they visit a store”. And this is understandable for a few reasons.

Firstly, millions of people are now working from home – so they have to make their own lunch, instead of buying it from a cafe or restaurant.

Also, buying a few extra items actually seems to fit with government advice on coronavirus. The lockdown rules that apply to everyone say that shopping should be done “as infrequently as possible”.

The government is also urging people to “plan ahead” in case a member of your household gets coronavirus – meaning you should not leave the house. The advice tells people to “think about what you will need in order to be able to stay at home for the full 7 or 14 days”.

And people who are deemed “extremely vulnerable” have been “strongly advised to stay at home at all times and avoid any face-to-face contact for a period of at least 12 weeks”.

So it’s not surprising that people want to buy more food – and, in the vast majority of cases, it appears this is reasonable and proportionate.


Have we missed anything? Have we got something wrong? If you have more information that you think we should share on this page, please get in touch by emailing:  martin.williams [at] itn.co.uk