There are serious questions to tackle over the resilience of the UK’s food supply chain but Oliver Dowden’s disaster plan is not one of them

As Prime Minister Rishi Sunak fires the starting gun for six weeks of political mayhem, the food and drink industry has put thoughts of summer holidays on hold to go into full manifesto mode.

After Brexit, the pandemic, two major wars and a cost-of-living crisis, the sector will now be thrust into the campaigning mix like never before as the government seeks to defy the bookies’ odds and extend its 14 years in power.

But rest assured that whatever happens, Sunak’s team of talents is planning for all eventualities, and it wants us all to do the same.

Yesterday, with a precious piece of timing that only the comedians on Downing Street could possibly conjure up, the Prime Minister’s deputy Oliver Dowden announced the government was launching a new “Prepare Prepare” website in a bid to help the hapless population prime itself for potential disaster.

Whether that extends to the pending arrival of a certain Sir Keir Starmer at Number 10 is unclear, but the Rt Hon Oliver Dowden told the London Defence Conference, held at King’s College, London, that Brits should stock up on three days’ worth of supplies, to protect themselves from a raft of possible calamities, including biosecurity crises, floods, power outages or perhaps another global pandemic.

Families should arm themselves with wind-up torches, tinned meat and bottles of water, says the new site, which would surely have been Baden Powell’s ultimate wet dream.

Dowden says it is time the public took heed from the frightful events in the spring of 2020. “Who can forget the empty supermarket shelves in the early days of the pandemic?” he told the conference.

“And how many of us have since acted so we’d be prepared if it happened again? If there was a national power outage, how many of us have torches and batteries? If the water went off, how many of us have a few bottles stored away?

“And if there was a cyber attack, how many of us have the means to listen to the radio without mains power or wi-fi?

Supermarket shortages predicted?

“A poll released today by our hosts – the London Defence Conference – shows that just 15% of people have an emergency supply kit in their homes, while more than 40% of people do not have three days’ supplies of non-perishable food and water. I make no apologies for reinforcing my recommendations that all households take a few minutes to consider their preparedness.”

The government’s website, just for the record, in case it has been taken down already for fear of causing too many people in the food industry to choke on their cornflakes, says that there is “no standard figure” of the amount of bottled water that people should stock up on “as emergencies can vary in duration and people use different amounts”.

But it advises: “A minimum of 2.5–3 litres of drinking water per-person per-day is recommended for survival.”

It also adds a whopping “10 litres per-person per-day” would make surviving Armageddon “comfortable” by also providing for basic cooking and hygiene needs. Additional water might be needed to make up baby formula, for medical devices and for pets.

Meanwhile, shoppers should also stock up on “non-perishable food that doesn’t need cooking, such as ready-to-eat tinned meat, fruit or vegetables”, not forgetting a tin opener (thanks for that Oliver).

“As with water, how much you need will vary based on your own circumstances,” it says. “Don’t forget food for pets.”

It’s tempting to let the deputy PM off any serious lambasting of this plan on the grounds that the website provides for great light entertainment, but it would be remiss not to point out certain problems with it.

Not least is the fact that whilst Dowden obviously has the picture of empty shelves imprinted on his brain, the same didn’t apply to the government official response to the Efra inquiry into its response to the pandemic’s threat to the supply chain.

In October 2020, it outright denied there had been major food shortages despite retailers admitting a raft of food products being stripped from the shelves – including loo roll and sanitiser, tinned foods, pasta, rice, fresh meat and bread. Yet according to the government this was all hysteria whipped up by the media with stockpiling confined to “certain longer-life products”.

At least there will be no mystery when the shelves are cleared in the next few days. The culprit will be obvious as the masses mobilise to the calls of Oliver’s army and stock up their cupboard spaces with tins of Heinz and bottles of Highland Spring.

But what does yesterday’s rallying call say about the politicians pulling the strings as the UK faces up to the threats of climate change and geo-political upheaval not seen since the Second World War?

Clear distinction needed

At the same time as Dowden churns out this nonsense, Defra is busy recruiting industry leaders to take part in its new Resilience Group, a body it is setting with the Food & Drink Sector Council, to try and guide industry and government intervention to stop the sort of disasters he talks about from wreaking havoc on the supply chain.

This week its chairman, Booth’s boss Nigel Murray told The Grocer the body would draw on the same “war room spirit” as that shown by the Food Resilience Industry Forum (FRIF), which had many industry leaders up from 7am in crisis management talks not so long ago.

The danger is that the more fluff that comes out of Whitehall, the more the chance serious and forward-thinking initiatives like this could be swept under the carpet by a new administration, rather than be taken on and developed with serious cross government intention.

“I had a little chuckle, especially on the timing,” says one industry source, on the website launch. “On a serious note, making people think about this sort of threat is not necessarily a bad thing. I quite like the idea of reminding people that food doesn’t automatically spew into a retailer

“On the other hand, it’s obviously nonsense to think you could have one standard rule for everybody. What’s right for someone in rural Dumfriesshire might not work for a family in Milton Keynes.

“And if everyone stocked up as the deputy PM suggested we’d soon have shortages. Most of all, it actually beggars belief that civil servants and the deputy PM have people to spend time to do this. At a time when they’ve put headcount restrictions on departments, why would anybody have been wasting their time on this? There is a real risk that it trivialises an important topic.”

“There must be a clear distinction between providing a firm formation on planning for supply chain challenges that is agnostic between whatever political party is going to come in after the election and things that are just ridiculous spin. And this falls very firmly into that category”.

The next PM will have a full in-tray when he emerges on the Downing Street steps in July, much of it central to the future of the food industry.

But it’s a fair bet that the “Prepare Prepare” website will meet its fate in the Downing Street shredder.