Food and drink companies have warned the government they will struggle to cope with extra demand from panic buying due to workforce shortages caused by the spread of the coronavirus outbreak.
The Food & Drink Federation has written to environment secretary George Eustice, urging the government to prioritise the food workforce as the outbreak develops.
The appeal comes as demand from stockpiling in supermarkets stretches the capacity of the supply chain to the limit.
The survey, of more than 80 companies, carried out over the past few days, revealed more than 80% had concerns about “maintaining production levels” amid fears that the industry will be hit with large-scale absenteeism because of the virus.
The FDF said the situation had become even more acute following the decision not to close schools. It criticised the Scottish and Welsh government for giving the industry no notice about the move to do so.
The survey revealed a third of companies feared they would be unable to meet an uplift in orders from supermarkets of between 11% and 25%, with a further 25% saying they would not be able to cope if orders grew by more than 25%.
In contrast, just 17% of companies said they believed they would have no issues in meeting extra demand.
Suppliers told the FDF the impact of panic buying, alongside the workforce crisis, was their biggest concern in coping with the crisis.
Supply chain disruption was seen as the biggest concern, with contacting back-up suppliers seen as the second-biggest concern
The Grocer understands major supplier bodies have held several meetings this week to discuss the threat to the industry posed by the virus, with a workforce crisis having emerged as the biggest issue.
A senior supplier source involved in the talks said; “The coronavirus outbreak is turning into the biggest threat to the industry we have seen in peacetime.
“It’s absolutely vital the government does all it can to help the industry cope with the threat to its workforce and the financial impact of the measures that are taking place.”
Suppliers have been responding to record orders from supermarkets, as well as demands to slash the range of goods to concentrate on core grocery items.
In the letter to Eustice, FDF CEO Ian Wright said: “With the decisions taken today to close many schools - unfortunately with no notice from the Scottish and Welsh governments - food and drink manufacturers will be deeply concerned about how they will maintain essential production in the coming weeks and protect their staff.
“We have surveyed our members over the last few days and over eight in 10 said that their key concern was maintaining production levels if a substantial number of staff are not available for work. This has now become even more acute.”
The letter calls on the government to include all food chain and drink chain and manufacturing workers in the list of ‘key workers’ due to be published later today.
“It is essential to the Critical National Infrastructure and our ability to feed the nation that the government supports the supply chain by defining food and drink supply chain workers as ‘key workers’ to ensure access to childcare provision,” says the letter.
Eustice said today he was confident in the ability of the food chain to stand up to the challenge.
“There isn’t a shortage of food,” he said. “The challenge that we’ve had is getting food to shelves at a time when people have been purchasing more.
“That is why we have taken steps including setting aside delivery curfews so that lorries can run around the clock, relaxing driver hours to ensure deliveries can take place more frequently.”