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Ocado for all - lessons from Second World War transport logistics

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Struggling to book a supermarket home delivery right now? Me too. As the government urges Britons to shop online to delay the spread of Covid-19, the ‘Big Four’ supermarkets of Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda and Morrisons like their smaller rivals Aldi, the Co-op, Lidl, Waitrose and Iceland are struggling to meet an unprecedented surge in demand. As yet, the key bottleneck is a shortage of vehicles and drivers to deliver the goods not a lack of goods. As a result of the driver shortage, many Britons are forced to trawl shops for supplies. This increases their risk of contracting Covid-19.

Pharmacies face similar problems. Collecting a prescription from my local chemist last week, I asked the pharmacist whether they would deliver next time. She offered me a job as their current delivery driver working two hours a day five days a week could not cope with demand. When he and delivery drivers like him self-isolate with Covid-19 symptoms, the problem will worsen. The armed forces won't be able to plug all the gaps. The same is true of supermarket recruitment drives. Training will be limited and checks minimal. The latter is a serious concern when delivering to the vulnerable.

So how do we increase the number of deliveries at scale and speed? A neglected volume of the official history of the Second World War with the enticing title Inland Transport offers several potential solutions. Heard of the Meat Transport Pool? I thought not. Neither had I until researching organised lorry theft in mid-twentieth-century London. Anticipating widespread disruption as result of enemy air attack in 1939, all the important meat road transport firms formed a jointly-owned private company to operate their fleets and allocate loads.

The catchily named Wholesale Meat Transport Association Ltd pooled vehicles and drivers. Divided into two sections, the heavy section moved meat from docks and abattoirs to cold stores and delivery depots while the light section delivered meat from depots to wholesalers, meat processors and retail butchers. The new firm proved a great success. In 1942 the wartime government nationalised the firm. Known as the Meat Transport Pool, it was the model for a more ambitious Road Haulage Scheme covering a wider range of goods. Were the Big Four supermarkets and their smaller rivals to form a Food Transport Pool of their own, this could form the core of an emergency road haulage organisation.

While pooling and coordinating existing capacity can help, it is not enough on its own. Large independent food haulage companies could join the road haulage organisation or take contract work from it. The armed forces could do likewise. Food banks are another pool of vehicles and drivers with relevant experience that such an organisation could draw upon. Some already have cordial working relationships with the supermarkets that could be leveraged.

Different arrangements are necessary for smaller independent food retailers and pharmacies. Again, wartime experience illuminates the darkness. Local councils can help coordinate pooling of wholesalers’ and retailers’ vehicles. They can also help them establish local distribution depots for ad-hoc buying associations. Local and regional government played a vital role in encouraging such schemes during the Second World War.

Local councils are also the key to unlocking a pool of under-employed drivers: licensed taxi drivers. Pre-checked and experienced, licensed cab drivers, taxi drivers and private hire operators already undertake contract work for local councils. With fares likely to dry up as people stay at home, these drivers will welcome the work.

Second World War analogies have abounded so far in the commentary on Covid-19 for all the wrong reasons. Some of the most important lessons we can draw from the period are connected with local government organisation and logistics, more than individual contributions. If councils can tie up with retailers and road transport in their localities and move towards more joined-up distribution systems, then vulnerable and older shoppers can be supplied at home, and at least one knock-on effect of the crisis can be mitigated.

If you think the points this article makes may be valuable during the current crisis, please consider sharing it with your local councillors.


C.R. Savage, Inland Transport (London: HMSO, 1957). 'The Meat Transport PC, and Its Achievements,' Commercial Motor.

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.

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