Consumers would be urged to pay with credit and debit cards in the event of a flu pandemic to prevent stores running out of change if staff illness made it difficult to replenish tills.

Plans for the measure were developed as part of Exercise Winter Willow, a government initiative established to aid planning in the event of a flu pandemic gripping the UK.

In a mock press release, seen by The Grocer, the British Retail Consortium reassures the public there is no danger that cash reserves will run out, but says paying with plastic will help preserve change for those who don't have cards.

The hypothetical release was 'issued' during a desk exercise earlier this year staged to simulate the food and drink sector's reaction to a flu pandemic (The Grocer, 3 March, p13).

At a meeting to evaluate the exercise last week, the BRC told Defra officials that keeping consumers informed of any disruption would be crucial to managing public behaviour.

"We have told government that consistent comments on this type of issue from the Treasury or Bank of England would be useful," said BRC food policy director Andrew Opie.

"In fact, one of our key conclusions is that consistent communication across all issues will be vital. Our members thought there were certain things we should put out to reassure consumers. But there were also things for the government to do, such as issuing advice on the handling of fresh produce."

Opie said positive lessons for a flu pandemic could be drawn from the way the Food Standards Agency had handled food safety issues following the outbreak of bird flu at Bernard Matthews' Holton farm in Suffolk two months ago.

"The Q&A the FSA put on its website was great," he said. "It was on its front page so we could refer people to it easily. The retailers used it too. And we know the number of inquiries about the outbreak in-store were low, which demonstrates that people got the message."