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23 March 2020updated 26 Jul 2021 7:01am

The coronavirus crisis has shown why we need a universal basic food service

Every household in the country should be provided with the essential items they need by the government. 

By Phil Jones

Food planning is in crisis. As panic sweeps the UK, supermarkets are consistently running out of essential goods; hospitals and care homes are struggling to feed the sick and elderly; unprecedented online traffic has crashed most supermarket websites; and on those sites still functioning, delivery slots are currently booked up until April. The overall stress these pressures are placing on the system will, without decisive intervention, push it to total collapse. We are reaching a point where supply chains are unable to respond sufficiently to demand, logistics systems are entirely breaking down, and the most vulnerable are being left without the food services they depend on.

This is a slow-burning catastrophe growing by the day. With food banks forced to close, people on low incomes are now, more than ever, vulnerable to starvation. UN data suggests that as much as 8.4million people are already “food insecure” in the UK, many of whom are low-income, elderly, or have a disability. The government’s decision to ask 1.5 million of the most vulnerable people to self-isolate, with essential goods delivered to their home, is a welcome measure, meaning those most at risk from the virus are no longer at risk of going hungry. However, these measures do nothing to protect low-income or other less vulnerable people who also need to self-isolate. The recent report we produced at Autonomy suggests that, without far more stringent social distancing measures, as many as 3 million people in the UK will have to self-isolate at the peak of the pandemic.

Many of the most vulnerable are being left to the mercy of the market. The government’s nudge strategy of simply asking shoppers not to panic-buy is as insufficient as the strategy has been elsewhere. Fear of starvation is one of the most primal fears humans can feel, the slightest hint of which can drive people to fight over the last packet of fusilli in the local Tesco Express. The free market is not set up to deal with this level of fear, and no amount of soothing bromides from Boris Johnson and others can change that. 

As a result, supermarkets and their workers are being forced to manage a crisis they’re not equipped to deal with. With no assistance from the government, they’ve had to organise their own rationing systems, reserve shopping hours for vulnerable people and use “floor markings” to encourage social distancing. These are, for want of a governmental strategy, the piecemeal solutions provided by a market system under unprecedented strain.

To ensure no one goes hungry and that social distancing measures are properly observed, we need a far more comprehensive delivery service than the one currently proposed, bringing essential items and meals to people across the country (as Labour leadership candidate Rebecca Long-Bailey has proposed since our report was published). 

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We at Autonomy have a two-pronged plan to address this crisis. First, we propose that the state partially take over supermarket supply chains for essential groceries and hygiene products as well as over-the-counter medicine. But rather than only being delivered to the 1.5 million most at risk from coronavirus, they should be given to every household in the country. 

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The government intends to use the military but a more efficient plan would harness the Royal Mail, which already has the necessary logistical infrastructure, as well as a 120,000-strong fleet of postal workers, who last week offered to act as “an additional emergency service” during the pandemic. This would mean everyone has the basic means to survive, whether they be society’s most vulnerable or the ever-increasing numbers forced to self-isolate.

We also propose that closed restaurants the country over should be subsidised by the government to run a meal delivery service, bringing fresh, cheap or free meals to local communities. This would function somewhat like the “British Restaurant” scheme which offered decent, affordable meals during the Second World War, only now as a delivery service. This is not only essential for those who are unable to cook due to sickness; warm restaurant meals represent a simple luxury otherwise lacking from our lives during such testing times. Acting as an employer of last resort, the service would provide many of the 1.7 million people in the hospitality industry with work during the pandemic period.

There is no going back to “normal” after this crisis, because its scale far exceeds that of other economic recessions. Coronavirus has exposed the threadbare fabric of capitalism. The pandemic presents an obligation to fundamentally reorient the way we organise social life, including the way we distribute and organise food. A national food and essentials service, collectively owned and run for the people and by the people, would be a start. But we should also think bigger: community-run kitchens; common dining areas; cooperatively run delivery services. These all exist already in some form or another, but must now be scaled up and widely implemented.

Before all of this, however, there is only one real priority: keeping people alive. Crucial to this, of course, is making sure we all have enough to eat.

Phil Jones is is a research affiliate at Autonomy think tank and a PhD researcher at the University of Sussex. He is currently writing a book about tasking and crowdwork.