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.