Policy Papers

Call it what it is – supermarket rationing

Mark Roodhouse |

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Executive Summary

  • The product restrictions and special opening hours that major food suppliers and retailers imposed on their customers in March 2020 are a historically novel form of rationing in which the state delegates responsibility for food rationing to private business.
  • Civil contingency and business continuity flu-pandemic plans first sketched during the mid-2000s under New Labour provide the blueprint for the current system of state-sponsored informal food rationing, supplemented by emergency food aid.
  • Drawn up without input from small independent retailers, trade unions, consumer organisations or patient groups, the planners assumed the worst of workers and shoppers.
  • This is clouding official and popular understanding of economic behaviour with images of skiving workers, panic buyers, looters and rioters.
  • While a necessary and appropriate response to a short three-month civil emergency, the inherent inequities and lack of democratic accountability of this approach make it unsustainable were the crisis to continue for longer.

‘Why only three tins rather than four?’ The shop worker at the checkout could not answer my question. After explaining I was shopping for two households, she rang the fourth tin through as a separate purchase. By exercising her discretion, she revealed one of many weaknesses of the product restrictions and special opening hours UK supermarkets have introduced to prevent Covid-19 induced shortages. To a historian of illegal markets, the potential for under-the-counter favouritism and worse is obvious. Outside of Warrington, there seems little to stop shoppers trawling supermarkets or increasing the frequency of their shopping trips. Making multiple purchases from the same online retailer is tougher. It is also harder to game systems prioritising delivery slots for vulnerable or loyal customers. Used to thinking like a historical spiv, I would not be surprised by unemployed ticket touts creating a secondary market in delivery slots. Overall, the system for allocating online deliveries is a crude one. Self-identification is unreliable as is supermarket data. The same is true of the UK Cabinet Office’s unified list of all lists of clinically extremely vulnerable people. Based on the NHS Digital Shielded Patient List and self-registration in England, DEFRA is sharing this list of lists with supermarkets. Despite its inequities and much grumbling, shoppers seem to have accepted informal supermarket rationing for now. 

Were these controls to last for six months as the UK Deputy Chief Medical Officer has suggested, First World War experience indicates popular pressure for formal government rationing will grow. Some experts are already calling for it. On 26 March the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) felt compelled to issue a statement responding to calls for food rationing along wartime lines. Those calling for this considered it a way to address shortages widely attributed to ‘panic buying’. The previous day Professor Dr John Ashton had told Daily Telegraph readers that food rationing was ‘inevitable’ while MailOnline readers learned that historian Dr Bryce Evans considered it ‘likely’. When a straw poll asked them what they thought, 71 percent of the 3,124 Daily Express readers who responded sided with Evans. All missed the point. Government-sanctioned rationing by suppliers and retailers is already with us. In fact, government documents reveal that informal rationing by supermarkets has been part of DEFRA planning for a flu pandemic since 2006.

Rationing in popular memory

That public discussion has struggled to recognise supermarket rationing for what it is should come as no surprise. For many Britons, rationing refers to the government allocating consumers a fixed allowance of essential but scarce products. This understanding is closely associated with popular memory of Second World War rationing when shortages forced belligerent and neutral states to ration essential and semi-essential consumer goods. Economists use the term more broadly. In their work, it is a synonym for resource allocation. To them, ‘rationing by the purse’ is market exchange by another name. They also distinguish between formal rationing by the state and informal rationing by non-state actors. The supermarket restrictions introduced after consultation with DEFRA straddle these two categories. Following the supermarkets’ example, smaller independent retailers started rationing shoppers, too. What the smaller retailers are doing is a straightforward case of informal rationing that bears comparison with the steps food retailers took to manage shortages in 1917. 

Before the Lloyd George coalition government introduced a thorough-going scheme in 1918, food retailers rationed their customers. How they did this varied. Some adopted the principle of first-come-first-served while others prioritised their existing customers over new ones. Many prioritised their more valuable customers over the less valuable ones. Restricting the number of items someone could purchase was another method. Reading the Which? online guide to current supermarket restrictions, one hears the echoes of these First World War practices. Focusing on existing high-spending customers (‘critical customers’ in the jargon) received Cabinet Office endorsement in the 2012 edition of Business Continuity for Dummies and purchase restrictions are another practice found in flu-pandemic planning documents. Yet within months of their imposition in 1917, the deficiencies of these and other informal rationing methods became apparent. Those on restricted diets were unable to get the foods they needed. People working long hours resented those with the time to trawl shops or stand in queues whilst their employers worried about them skipping work to queue for food. In this regard, supermarkets setting aside shopping hours for key workers and the vulnerable is a step forward, as is prioritising home deliveries for the vulnerable.

Under-the-counter favouritism was also a problem with informal and formal rationing during the First World War. The same was true of the Second World War. In both conflicts, shop assistants and managers were not averse to setting things aside for favoured customers or giving them more than others. It was a regular grumble recorded in weekly Home Intelligence Reports between 1940 and 1944. During both wars tipping shop assistants and delivery workers became the norm as customers sought to wheedle extras from them. Shortages had overturned the notion that the customer was always right. Retailers now had the upper hand. Keeping them sweet was a good idea. Thoughtful retailers realised this could not last and that how they treated their customers during the emergency would be remembered long afterwards a fact the British Retail Consortium reminded its members in its 2007 basic guide to flu-pandemic planning. The Led By Donkeys ‘Coronavirus Heroes vs Zeroes’ campaign suggests a similar dynamic is already present.

What is the state’s role today?

Where informal supermarket rationing today differs from informal rationing during the First World War is the direct involvement of the state. As far as the Conservative Environment Secretary George Eustice is concerned, 'supermarkets are best placed to judge what stock limits they should place on their particular product lines and many are already taking measures to do this.' The role of government is to support retailers through the DEFRA Food Chain Emergency Liaison Group (FCELG), a group whose precise membership remains secret, and ad-hoc ministerial meetings with major supermarkets. Professor Tim Lang recently suggested this amounted to an abdication of responsibility. Ministers had left the business of ensuring the food supply to the market and major retailers. In fact, the government has delegated responsibility for rationing to them.

That the government has, indeed, delegated responsibility for feeding the nation during a civil emergency is best seen in the ways it is supporting food suppliers and retailers. While major retailers rationed their customers in March, the government relaxed competition laws to enable supermarkets to pool their resources, extended the hours they could deliver to their stores and extended the number of hours their drivers could work in a day. A business rate tax break is also offsetting increased labour costs due to a Covid-19 bonus, sick pay for the self-isolating and workforce expansion. DEFRA is also sharing the Cabinet Office's and devolved administrations' unified lists of shielded patients with supermarkets. This will help supermarkets prioritise home deliveries to shielded patients who do not already shop online or hold a supermarket loyalty card. At present, this marketing data only allows them to identify the over-70s and those who self-declare that they are clinically extremely vulnerable.

The resultant state-backed informal rationing by major food suppliers and retailers was the only approach available to government because with responsibility for food and farming divided between devolved administrations and Whitehall, the major suppliers and retailers are the only organisations spread across all four nations of the UK. Health Secretary Matt Hancock may envy his Cabinet colleague Environment Secretary George Eustice. Both ministers face an uphill struggle to coordinate a UK-wide response to the crisis thanks to devolution and public sector marketisation. A balkanised NHS lies at the heart of the UK healthcare response to Covid-19 with private healthcare providers acting as auxiliaries. Without a National Food Service, Eustice relies on major suppliers and retailers to feed people. This gives him a considerable advantage over Hancock. As well as their UK-wide reach and vertical integration from dockside and farmgate to shop shelves, food businesses possess the labour and capital that ten years of austerity has sucked from the public sector. The resultant government-backed informal rationing schemes are a historical novelty but are a necessity, not a government choice and are the direct consequence of several decades of policies which accepted that the state’s role was to facilitate the private sector in the area of food and agriculture.

While very slow to react to Covid-19 according to the food industry, the measures the Environment Secretary George Eustice has implemented follow flu-pandemic plans sketched out fourteen years earlier under Tony Blair’s Labour Government. Struggling to cope with the ‘creeping crises’ brought about by UK fuel protests in 2000 and the foot-and-mouth outbreak a year later the Blair government was prompted to overhaul civil contingency planning. Stung by public criticism of the handling of these crises and determined to avoid a repeat of the ‘Winter of Discontent’, the Cabinet tasked Environment Minister Margaret Beckett with reviewing UK food security. DEFRA commissioned Dr Helen Peck of the Cranford Resilience Centre to conduct a year-long study of business continuity planning. Her 2006 report is the basis for the current approach to feeding the people. 

Fighting the last war

Like generals, Peck and other government planners prepared to fight previous wars. As Chris Cook has pointed out, fear of a repeat of the 1918 flu pandemic guided public health officials’ pandemic plans, while the threat posed by emerging infectious diseases like coronavirus received little consideration. Something similar happened when it came to food security. The Peck Report voiced government and industry fears of loss of access to sites, loss of fuel and power, and loss of labour disrupting a precarious, just-in-time food supply chain due to terrorist attacks, power cuts, fuel protests or a flu pandemic. Memory of IRA terrorist attacks and 1970s power cuts informed understanding of the first two problems as much as the events of the early 2000s. The loss of labour, the third risk, was closely associated with flu pandemic planning that the 2002-4 SARS epidemic and 2003 avian flu outbreak made urgent. Although DEFRA documents cited the 1918 flu pandemic regularly, it functioned only as a bogeyman to scare decision makers into recognising the serious risks a pandemic posed. This was the only discernible lesson planners drew from that experience. Instead, it was the response to SARS and avian flu that informed official thinking. The same is true of the public health planning documents Cook reviews. 

Most of the measures the government and major retailers have taken during the current pandemic aim to tackle anticipated labour shortages and high levels of absenteeism. This was the core problem identified by government and corporate planners in 2006. The disruption that might be caused to international supply chains due to other countries experiencing similar labour problems or imposing product export bans was not mentioned. Panic buying and public disorder in response to actual or anticipated supply chain disruption were secondary concerns that received much less attention. DEFRA assumed that major retailers would choose to fix prices to avoid charges of profiteering. It was also assumed that they might introduce consumer rationing but DEFRA left the detail of this to retailers. DEFRA also assumed wholesalers would ration supplies to smaller independent retailers. This aspect of the current situation has yet to receive significant public attention. Although small independent retailers have had limited input into these aspects of pandemic planning, workers and consumers have had none at all. This may explain an unduly pessimistic view of skiving workers and panic buyers found in the Peck Report.

From the Peck Report in 2006 to Operation Yellowhammer leaks in 2019, the figure of an irrational fearful shopper has featured prominently in civil contingency planning. This explains a noticeable tendency to blame consumers for current shortages rather than fragile supply chains that cannot cope with a surge in demand. Storing enough food for two weeks’ at home has been standard government advice for civilian emergencies since the 1950s. Although the government advised a two-week isolation period, it did not reissue such food storage advice in 2020. As several commentators pointed out at the time, some consumers worked this out for themselves and increased their purchases to lay down two weeks of supplies. Supply chains proved incapable of coping with a sudden unanticipated surge in demand due to a shift from eating out to eating in and holiday cancellations, as well as stockpiling by a minority of customers centred in virus epicentres. Although Tesco recognise several reasons for product shortages, it is panicked shoppers who it holds responsible. Announcing its preliminary annual results, Tesco told investors that, ‘In the first few weeks of the crisis, significant panic buying (c.30% uplift in the UK) cleared the supply chain of certain items.’

Other supermarket chains experienced similar shortages of tins of baked beans, peas and chopped tomatoes as well as toilet rolls, pasta and hand sanitiser before the government issued stay at home guidance on 23 March. When the press reported the shortages, shoppers rushed to secure supplies for themselves - an entirely rational course of action. Fears of toilet rolls running out generated some memorable, viral footage on the internet. A similar pattern occurred in Autumn 1939 when the press attacked ‘selfish’ and ‘irrational’ hoarders. Naturally, the supermarket shortages worsened, which prompted government-backed informal rationing. This has permitted exhausted just-in-time supply chains to replenish and an easing of rationing. Although relaxed somewhat, Tesco anticipates imposing product restrictions until July and possibly beyond. Pressure on supermarket supply chains remains high. Eating in, cancelled holidays and smaller competitors closing continue to inflate sales. Despite unprecedented recruitment drives, labour shortages also remain a problem due to staff burnout, ordinary sickness and self-isolation with Covid-19 symptoms.


Returning to the question I began with why three tins rather than four I am none the wiser. The decision is an arbitrary one based on stock levels and sales volumes rather than consumer needs. Who made this and similar decisions, how they reached them and what the consequences might be are far more important questions. And these I can answer. In 2006 DEFRA decided to delegate feeding the people during a civil emergency to the market and major retailers. With government backing, trade associations and major firms decide behind closed doors who gets what. The public does not know who attends these meetings but planning documents suggest only limited involvement by smaller independent companies. Worker and consumer representatives are frozen out. Comparison with earlier periods reveals that the current system is an historical novelty blurring the lines between formal and informal rationing. It is an experiment that reflects thinking from 2006 under a New Labour administration. Such thinking mirrors a view of the relationships between the state and the market that dated back to the premises of the previous Conservative administrations of Margaret Thatcher and John Major.

While history reveals the novelty of the supermarket rationing model, it also offers emergency planners a warning. First World War experience of informal rationing by retailers suggests this might work in the short term. Were the crisis to continue for six months or longer, there are risks of serious opposition and even that civil unrest would increase. By December 1917, the London Metropolitan Police monitored food queues for fear of frustrated consumers rioting and looting shops. Public appeals from food retailers like Sir Arthur Yapp, of the restaurant chain, food manufacturer and hotel conglomerate J. Lyons & Co, to nudge ‘food hogs’ to eat less went down badly. By September 2020, the Johnson government could find itself in a similar situation from which its new critical friend Sir Keir Starmer would profit, just as the Labour Movement did in the First World War.

Further Reading

Sir William H. Beveridge, British Food Control (Oxford, 1928), https://archive.org/details/economicsocialhisto05carn/mode/2up [open access]

Cabinet Office, Public Summary of Sector Security and Resilience Plans (London, 2018), https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/786206/20190215_PublicSummaryOfSectorSecurityAndResiliencePlans2018.pdf

Mark Roodhouse, ‘Rationing,’ in Dale Southerton, Encyclopedia of Consumer Culture (SAGE Publications, 2011), http://sk.sagepub.com/reference/consumerculture/n443.xml [£]

Mark Roodhouse, Black Market Britain, 1939-1955 (Oxford, 2013).

Tim Lang, ‘Coronavirus: rationing based on health, equity and decency now needed - food system expert,’ The Conversation, 23 Mar 2020, https://theconversation.com/coronavirus-rationing-based-on-health-equity-and-decency-now-needed-food-system-expert-133805

DEFRA Press Office, ‘Responses to calls for food rationing,’ DEFRA Press Office Blog, 26 Mar 2020, https://deframedia.blog.gov.uk/2020/03/26/response-to-calls-for-food-rationing/

Helen Peck, Resilience in the Food Chain: A Study of Business Continuity Management in the Food and Drink Industry: Final Report to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Cranfield Resilience Centre, July 2006), https://www.cips.org/Documents/Resources/Research/Defra%20report%20-%20Resiliance%20in%20the%20Food%20Chain.pdf

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