Twenty thousand additional ventilators, pregnancy-style Covid-19 testing kits and protective equipment: the government’s shopping list of Covid-19 weaponry is vast and mounting daily.
But it has so far missed a vital element in its plan of attack: rescuing the very companies that are responsible for feeding hospital patients and the elderly in care homes – foodservice wholesalers.
On Friday 20 March the prime minister ordered all cafés, restaurants, bars and pubs to close, in a bid to stem the spread of coronavirus.
The knock-on effect of this move further down the supply chain threatens to be just as devastating as it is for those on the frontline – except those supplying the bars and restaurants do not yet have the promise of a £330bn lifeline to cling on to.
The harsh reality is that this current lack of financial aid in a critical part of the supply chain is risking those most in need. Many of the same wholesalers supplying hospitality are also major distributors to the NHS, care homes, schools and even prisons.
These companies’ biggest concern right now is cashflow in order to keep on keeping on. Many are in dire straits. The Grocer reported last week that some distributors are already drawing up redundancy plans.
Industry leaders are working with the government to find ways to help, warning that lack of support will have a devastating effect on these businesses.
The Federation of Wholesale Distributors is urgently calling on the Chancellor for help, having been warned by members that the threat of collapse, within weeks for some, is very real.
After seeing a 70% decline in trade over the past week, the worry is that many of these wholesalers are now unable to pay for stock they have purchased, which pushes the problem further down the supply chain to the manufacturers and food producers.
That’s not to say the industry is by any means resting on its laurels in the hope that the government will bail them out.
Within days foodservice wholesalers began to diversify, in a desperate bid to mitigate the shortfall in turnover.
Bidfood, JJ Foodservice and others have begun selling direct to consumers, while Unitas has seen its foodservice specialists teaming up with their heavily stretched retail-focused counterparts.
While it demonstrates a great adaptability, selling catering-sized products to consumers has its limitations. 2.4kg tins of baked beans are unlikely to hold mass appeal.
These are just some of the measures that we need to see more of to keep liquidity in this vital sector. Absolutely key will be government recognition of the vital role foodservice wholesalers will need to play on an ongoing basis – and getting them the support they urgently need.