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Senior food and drink figures have described the “total lack of preparation” by government when the covid crisis struck three years ago, which risked supply chain chaos and food shortages.

Speaking as the official inquiry into the government’s handling of the pandemic began taking evidence this week, sources told The Grocer Defra had “no resources” dedicated to tackling the oncoming crisis, even though its impact had been witnessed in China and elsewhere in Europe.

Instead, ministers were said to have been “completely consumed” with preparing for a no deal Brexit, while another chunk of the department’s resources were dedicated to drawing up Henry Dimbleby’s National Food Strategy.

This week, as former prime minister David Cameron admitted the government had not done enough to put in place national resilience plans to cope with such a pandemic, details emerged of how the government was caught off guard by the fast-moving events of 2020. One source said its action to engage with the food industry only began after frantic calls from business leaders warning that a co-ordinated response was needed.

The Grocer has spoken to figures who are concerned lessons from the pandemic may be forgotten.

In early March 2020, weeks before the UK went into lockdown, The Grocer reported fury from leading industry figures over claims from then health secretary Matt Hancock that it was working with supermarkets to ensure food supplies were safeguarded as the coronavirus outbreak worsened and shops started to see panic buying.

The claims were said to have no basis in truth, while industry leaders slammed the “very slow” response from officials.

This week, as the inquiry returned the focus on those testing times, one leading figure told The Grocer: “There was very little preparation, in fact there was no preparation.

“Defra was 100% focused on Brexit and the possibility of a no deal outcome in negotiations. Then all hell broke loose.”

The source added the majority of Defra staff were also focused on the withdrawal from the EU, while former food tsar Dimbleby also had a small army of staff working on his plans.

“Henry had a very large team of civil servants from Defra working for him. But of course the National Food Strategy was a long-term issue. It wouldn’t be unfair to say the government was too busy thinking about the long term than what was happening right then.”

Dimbleby’s team was later disbanded to free up resources but by then there had been weeks of warnings from businesses that coronavirus needed to be the focus of the government’s attention, with little in the way of response.

In February 2020, The Grocer reported claims for the BRC that the government’s planning for coronavirus fell well short of what was needed and contrasted starkly with detailed plans published in 2011, as part of an exercise to prepare the industry for a possible flu pandemic.

By March, industry figures were finally called to meetings that resulted in the Food Resilience Industry Forum (FRIF), which had been originally set up to handle the fallout from Brexit. Officials were said to be in a state of “desperation”.

“Defra desperately needed to have senior industry figures involved but there wasn’t anybody,” said a source. “There was no team.”

Yet within 48 hours of food leaders becoming involved, FRIF had called together dozens of industry experts to tackle an impact on the supply chain that one involved compared with a “tsunami”.

It is understood a “dossier” of evidence has been prepared by Defra in case staff are called to give their version of events to the inquiry, though so far no leading figures from the department or the industry have been called for evidence.

An earlier inquiry by the Environment, Food & Rural Affairs Select Committee accused ministers of ignoring warnings from the experience of Covid in other countries.

It found the government was “unprepared” for the possibility of food shortages in the supermarkets and the disastrous impact on hospitality businesses and that the impact on food supplies would have been far worse had the industry not stepped in to fill the vacuum.

This week the FDF and the BRC were among organisations who said they were not expecting to be asked to give evidence, despite having strongly criticised the lack of preparedness at the time and in the Efra inquiry.

One supplier source said many felt it was pointless giving evidence to the inquiry because “the horse has already bolted”.

But another told The Grocer it would be a “tragedy” if the lessons of the fiasco were not learnt to ensure any future pandemic saw a better response.

“The industry did pull together incredibly well in the end,” they said. ”But this was despite rather than because of the plan that was in place. What is vital now is that the lessons we learnt are lost again if, God forbid, this happens again.”