Lockdown and the foodchain


When we start talking about the lockdown and when it should have started, we have a couple of fixed dates.

The first is the 16 March 2020. This is when the Imperial College COVID-19 Response Team produced ‘Impact of non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs) to reduce COVID19 mortality and healthcare demand.’



In the document itself it mentions that the picture they paint is based on experience in Italy. This is because prior to this they’d mainly had Chinese data to work on. So the 16th March makes a nice start date. This is the scientific evidence that we were probably going to need a lockdown.

If you had demanded a lockdown before then you’d just be another nutter shambling along wearing your sandwich boards, muttering about the end of the world being nigh.

If you look back from now and say we should have locked down before that date, you’re just another social media warrior with perfect hindsight.


A harsh lockdown wasn’t on the cards. To quote the Guardian of the 19th March, “Sadiq Khan said no one wanted to order sweeping and unprecedented measures such as closing schools. “But these are extraordinary times. It’s very important we understand the consequence of people’s liberties and human rights not being deprived or curtailed, suspended, is lives being lost.”

Khan, a former human rights lawyer, was critical of what he said was ambiguous information being released by the government, and said bans might be needed to stop people gathering in bars and restaurants. “We are not there yet,” he said. “The advice from the government is just advice. I think that provides a mixed message. It’s clearly not been clear enough. We may move to a situation where we move from advice to bans.”




Then we come to our next date. On 20 March, the four governments (England, Scotland, Northern Island and Wales,) shut all schools, restaurants, pubs, indoor entertainment venues and leisure centres, with some minor exceptions.

Then there is our final date, to quote the wiki, “On 23 March, the UK government imposed a lockdown on the whole population, banning all “non-essential” travel and contact with people outside one’s home (including family and partners), and shutting almost all businesses, venues, facilities, amenities and places of worship. People were told to keep apart in public. Police were empowered to enforce the lockdown, and the Coronavirus Act 2020 gave the government emergency powers not used since the Second World War.”


So let’s look at the foodchain.
In the UK, depending on how you measure it, but about 30% of food eaten is sold to us in a finished form from catering outlets. So this is the pizza delivered to your home, or the sandwich and coffee you nip out of work to buy for your dinner, the nice restaurant meal you enjoy that evening.

So on the 16th March the food chain should have been ticking along nicely because nothing had changed. Except that it wasn’t ticking along nicely, for no entirely logical reason, we had a wave of panic buying. It was on the 20th March that Dawn Bilbrough filmed herself crying after finding supermarket shelves empty after spending two days working at an intensive care ward. Supermarkets started rationing people to no more than three or four of the same item.

Now into this situation government are forced to introduce the lock down on catering outlets. Suddenly people have to buy all their own food from retailers rather than caterers. Technically the food is there. The problem is that it isn’t in the place where it needs to be. The food was sitting in Pret warehouses, or in a partially prepared state in the Greggs supply chain. It wasn’t in supermarkets, and even if it had been, it wouldn’t have been saleable or useably by the ordinary consumer. Suddenly supermarkets had to frantically find that lost thirty percent. To make it worse, the form it was currently produced in might not have been suitable for the retail trade. It is fine for a factory to send out cartoons of fifty identical pizzas in a large plastic pack with a packing slip glued to it saying what they are. Your caterer can cope with that. But to be sold direct to the customer, they’ve got to be entirely repackaged. If only for public health reasons. Do you want somebody ahead of you in the queue rummaging through a pile of unpackaged pizzas to find the one she likes best?
On top of this, wild stockpiling by bizarrely panicking shoppers had left supermarket stocks run down. Obviously some of that food would come out of domestic stockpiles, as people ate their way through their own personal pasta mountain. But there were newspaper reports of a lot being thrown away because people had stockpiled fresh fruit and loaves of bread!

So the foodchain had a problem. It had to source thirty percent more, almost literally overnight, with damn all warning and preparation time. Amazingly there wasn’t chaos. In the milk industry a couple of dairies who had focussed on the catering market came unstuck and their farmer suppliers were forced to pour milk down the drain. But a lot of sharp people got to work and at one point a UK based dairy was exporting concentrated milk (This is ordinary milk with some of the water taken out to save space on transport. The milk is used for manufacturing at the other end.).

It’s the same with the rest of the foodchain. Buyers were scouring the world for stuff that they could ship. But at the same time there’s no point in, for example, Tesco, sourcing a lot of cheese or fruit in Spain if they cannot bring it into the country. An awful lot of stuff comes into the country in wagons, and even under the current quarantine arrangements, these drivers are still coming in. You either have them or we bring in food rationing.

There were obviously problems, beef and lamb prices have been hit. But the show has somehow stayed on the road.

That short gap between when the 20th when government shut the catering trade, and the 23rd when they just shut a lot more, was very useful. It gave the retail trade a chance to re-jig things. It gave manufacturers time to get packing materials suitable for the new outlet. It gave people a chance to take on extra employers. Because the lockdown had been flagged it gave these companies (along with many others) a chance to work out who could work from home, and who had to come in. In our case it meant that my lady wife could nip out and pick up a handful of things which meant that three days later, when we got coronavirus and had to self-isolate anyway for a fortnight, the only thing we ran out of was clementines.

A fortnight later I went out to do our first shopping and noticed immediately that our local Tesco had gaps. To be honest I rather expected them. The next time I went a week later the gaps were still there but different products were missing. I was chatting to a mate of mine who works there. I asked him what it was like from his side of the counter. The answer was interesting.

“It’s madness. They’re just sending us stuff, and we cannot sell it.”
“So what would you want me to buy today?”
“Could you just take a whole shelf of yoghurt, Jim? I could replace it twice with stuff in the back.”

Given the intricacy of the supermarket’s ‘just in time’ ordering system, I don’t think there is any reason for surprise that it wasn’t working too well. Instead of the depot sending the manager what he asked for, they were just sending him what they’d got.

But to be honest, what strikes me is that the really amazing thing is that our foodchain might have flexed a bit, there might have been screams when some bits were put under a lot of pressure, but it didn’t break.

That to me is the real miracle. To be honest I’ve no patience for the arguments that ‘It could have been done better.’ Could we have saved ten or twenty thousand deaths? Or if we’d locked down so fast the food chain broke, could we have lost an extra twenty thousand because desperate people took panic buying to another level and swamped retailers, ignoring totally social distancing and hand washing?


There again, what to I know?
Ask the expert


A collection of anecdotes, it’s the distillation of a lifetime’s experience of peasant agriculture in the North of England. I’d like to say ‘All human life is here,’ but frankly there’s more about Border Collies, Cattle and Sheep.

27 thoughts on “Lockdown and the foodchain

  1. xantilor May 22, 2020 at 10:50 am Reply

    On 16th March 2020 I wrote in my journal, “I think this is essentially a media-fuelled catastrophe, if that’s what it becomes. If we didn’t know about Covid-19, we’d just think it was a nasty flu epidemic and we’d carry on as normal; herd immunity would set in, and the economy survive unscathed.”

    Nothing has happened since then to make me change my mind. I do agree that it’s a miracle food supplies kept up, with just the odd thing one wants being unavailable. If given a choice of supermarkets or hospitals keeping open, I know which I’d choose.

    • jwebster2 May 22, 2020 at 12:06 pm Reply

      It was ridiculous things that I couldn’t find. I mean, how can there be no ‘hobnobs’ (the biscuit) when I decided to treat myself to a nice piece of Stilton to cheer myself up 🙂

  2. Jack Eason May 22, 2020 at 10:50 am Reply

    Since this new strain of SARS was discovered in 2019, thats when the world should have been made aware….

  3. Stevie Turner May 22, 2020 at 10:58 am Reply

    Supermarket shelves seem back to normal now, and the panic buying has stopped I think. However, I can’t work out why if you order food online from supermarkets they’re ‘out of stock’ of some items, but if you go into the shop the same products are there on the shelves.

    • jwebster2 May 22, 2020 at 12:04 pm Reply

      That too is beyond me. Some of it might be the packers running out of time for an order and just ticking ‘out of stock’ ?
      I’ve never used the service so don’t know

  4. Cathy Cade May 22, 2020 at 12:31 pm Reply

    Hindsight is a wonderful thing, isn’t it? It will be interesting to see in a couple of years time which countries fared best. Will Sweden’s casual approach – which has been panned for producing more deaths than its Scandinavian neighbours – result in a smaller second spike than other, more initially “successful” appproaches? Or will it all level out in the end? (bearing in mind that small, densely-populated islands with close neighbours were never going to have the same experience as – for example – a sparsely populated and easily isolated country like New Zealand – even allowing for having a woman prime minister, which seems to have been an advange in other countries too).
    Isn’t it a shame that all the media “experts” don’t have enough authority to be taken any notice of by them in power? I wonder why that is?

    • jwebster2 May 22, 2020 at 1:30 pm Reply

      With regard to social media experts I always remember that, “When small men begin to cast big shadows, it means that the sun is about to set.” — Lin Yutang

      But yes it’s going to be interesting to see what the next couple of years bring

  5. Cathy Cade May 22, 2020 at 1:54 pm Reply

    I like that quote – I’ll try to remember that. thanks 🙂

    • jwebster2 May 22, 2020 at 1:55 pm Reply

      Strangely enough I first saw it on somebody’s blog and said exactly the same thing 🙂
      I’ve got a word document full of them

  6. xantilor May 22, 2020 at 2:24 pm Reply

    Ha! I’ve just copied your quotation to add to my collection, though I tend to paste them randomly in the notes of the WIP. I like to have two or three apposite quotes at the start of my novels.
    Perhaps I’ll start a Word document.

    • jwebster2 May 22, 2020 at 3:15 pm Reply

      it’s useful
      One which will appeal to writers is from a writer, Andrew K. Lawston, who described one popular genre as, “bold tales of freely-punctuated forbidden vampire love”

  7. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt May 22, 2020 at 4:20 pm Reply

    Beautiful analysis, Jim. If you are entirely correct, your government responded with lightning speed: March 16 to March 23 is ONE WEEK. Why doesn’t it feel as it they did it right?

    We’ve had the example of previous pandemics, even within living memory: the 1918 flu. Somehow our tech generation believed at its very core that we would be immune from having anything of that scale again. Instead, the interconnectedness of the world accelerated the world-wide part of that.

    If the people in charge do not believe something can actually happen, they don’t respond well – as shown in the current example.

    I’m just glad to have avoided the senior community disasters, but I wouldn’t be in a position to opine if I had.

    • jwebster2 May 22, 2020 at 4:40 pm Reply

      Firstly I think one issue is that Boris is not somebody who believes in government just dragooning people into things. All the way through he has tried to lead by persuasion. The iron fist of legal controls is there, but he’s tried to put a big thick velvet glove on it.
      So people do seem to have taken on the message of social distancing, perhaps wearing masks in areas where they are more densely packed. (So apparently londoners tend to be keen on masks but round here where there isn’t the heaving public transport we seem to be happy just to social distance.)
      But if you look at https://www.euromomo.eu/graphs-and-maps/
      If you assume that there is 3 weeks from infection to death, then looking at the excess death figures, with the lockdown starting at the beginning of week 13, you’d expect to see deaths fall from week 16 through to week 17
      But actually out deaths start to fall on week during week 15-16
      One or two other people have commented on this, it may be that social distancing and similar have been effective without the lockdown.
      Obviously it’s a bit marginal but I suspect epidemiologists are going through these figures with interest and with far more knowledge than me

  8. Eddy Winko May 24, 2020 at 7:18 am Reply

    Poland is the new nation of small shopkeepers, certainly in the rural areas, and I think this went a long way to ensuring that no one was short of anything when our lockdown started. And since the numbers of cases seem to be very low over here people seem to have relaxed into the restrictions and set their own limits. Most people that we know never stopped working and small gatherings seem to have continued throughout.
    I couldn’t tell you the date that Poland closed its borders, it was very early on, but I suspect it had something to do with the low infection rate over here.

    • jwebster2 May 24, 2020 at 3:54 pm Reply

      I think this episode is driving home to us how different countries are, culturally and epidemiological
      One comment is that the UK has a major problem with obesity and type 2 diabetes, which make you far more at risk of the virus.
      We are also a very densely populated country
      England has 259 people per square kilometre, Poland 124
      So that might have an effect as well.
      So I’m not going to sit hear and tell the Poles how to do things 🙂

  9. Widdershins May 24, 2020 at 9:46 pm Reply

    I was pleasantly surprised when our foodchain here stayed fairly intact too … mind you we’re just starting the harvesting season now, on both sides of the border, Canada/US, and seasonal workers, at least on this side of the border have to wait 14 days before they’re good to go … so we shall see.

    • jwebster2 May 25, 2020 at 4:48 am Reply

      Yes there is a crunch point coming in this country. Some of our foreign workers did come in but we’re awfully short of people to do the picking. Whether they will get British people to do the picking is moot (to put it mildly)
      Some have volunteered but the hours, the fact that you will almost certainly have to live away from home in a farm caravan and the fact that it is damned hard work is putting people off.

      • Widdershins May 25, 2020 at 8:38 pm

        When I was a whole lot younger and a helluva lot fitter, I did a few seasons of picking. Not only was it backbreaking, but I’ve never been able to look at cucumbers the same way again. 🙂

      • jwebster2 May 26, 2020 at 4:34 am

        That I can well imagine 🙂
        Seriously it is a young person’s game unless you’ve spent many years doing it

  10. Jack Eason May 26, 2020 at 7:31 am Reply

    Reblogged this on Have We Had Help? and commented:
    Jim on ‘lockdown’…

  11. M T McGuire May 26, 2020 at 10:42 am Reply

    I really think there are few right answers all anyone can do in a situation like this is to look at our particular set of circumstances, the facts and the experiences of other similar nations and then try and meld it all into a plan that will work for us. That was a splendid summation.



    • jwebster2 May 26, 2020 at 12:07 pm Reply

      My gut feeling is that the lockdown is fading. Round her our population is low paid and we have a very high proportion of key workers. So if you’re furloughed, 80% means you have to top up with the foodbank
      And if the government tells you that you’re find mixing a two meters with random strangers, why are you not fine mixing at 2 meters with family?
      I suspect that round here there won’t be much resistance to children going back to school except where they have a vulnerable person in the house

      • M T McGuire May 26, 2020 at 12:53 pm

        Agreed. Traffic is back up to normal levels round us and to be honest if there’s a second wave people need a few weeks to catch up before it hits.

      • jwebster2 May 26, 2020 at 2:20 pm

        I think the crude figure is three weeks from infection to death
        I’d expect to see signs from Italy, Germany and Spain in about a fortnight
        Levels of infection is no help, it tends to depend on the efficiency of testing. So here in Barrow where our hospital trust was brilliant at testing, we’re down as the area with the highest level of infection (but actually deaths isn’t a lot worse than a lot of other places)

      • M T McGuire May 26, 2020 at 10:18 pm

        Yeh. Hoping that it will get back to normal for a bit. Fully expecting a second wave

      • jwebster2 May 27, 2020 at 7:42 am

        I genuinely don’t know. The danger of lockdown is that you do get a second wave, whereas if you don’t have lockdown then when it’s done, it’s done.
        But if you look at the curves for ‘excess deaths’ on https://www.euromomo.eu/graphs-and-maps/ (scroll down and they’re by country) you see the curve is about the same whether you locked down or nott

      • jwebster2 May 26, 2020 at 2:22 pm

        Also a lot of email groups I’m on have got quieter again, people are back at work 🙂

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