Government tells supermarkets to ‘join forces’

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) has told supermarkets to “join forces” as the coronavirus crisis unfolds.

It announced it is “temporarily relaxing” elements of competition law as part of a new package of measures to allow supermarkets to “work together to feed the nation”.

The move will allow retailers to share data with each other on stock levels, cooperate in order to keep shops open, and share distribution depots and delivery vans. It will also allow retailers to pool staff with one another to help meet demand.

The environment secretary George Eustice confirmed these elements of competition law would be temporarily waived in a meeting with chief executives from the UK supermarkets that was held yesterday (19 March).

The government announced it has also temporarily “relaxed” rules regarding drivers’ hours, to enable more food to be delivered to stores. The 5p plastic bag charge for online deliveries will also be waived in order to speed up deliveries.

The support for supermarkets comes as the government and retailers continue to urge people to shop considerately and “look out for their friends, family and neighbours”. 

Eustice said: “By relaxing elements of competition laws temporarily, our retailers can work together on their contingency plans and share the resources they need with each other during these unprecedented circumstances.

“We welcome the measures supermarkets are already taking to keep shelves stocked and supply chains resilient, and will continue to support them with their response to coronavirus.”

Business secretary, Alok Sharma, said: “In these extraordinary and challenging times it is important that we remove barriers to our supermarkets working together to serve customers, particularly those who are elderly, ill or vulnerable in all parts of the UK.

“The temporary relaxation of competition law for the food sector will allow supermarkets to cooperate with each other to keep their shops staffed, their shelves stocked, and the nation fed.”

Andrew Opie, director of food and sustainability at the British Retail Consortium, said: “Retailers have been working hard to ensure shelves are stocked and this is an exceptional step taken by government to help retailers and their suppliers cope with problems that might be caused by widescale absences across the supply chain.

“This is a short term measure, in the spirit of working together, and will allow retailers to agree common specifications for products to bolster food production, and co-ordinate certain operations to ensure customers anywhere in the UK have access to the essential items they need.”

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