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21 March 2020updated 23 Mar 2020 3:13pm

Stockpiling is primarily a problem fuelled by the press and the government

Stories designed to discourage the practice have the reverse effect – and both the government and the media need to change their approach.

By Stephen Bush

Don’t think of an elephant.

That simple game illustrates the challenge that governments across the world face in discouraging people from stockpiling in the wake of the Covid-19 downturn. If the government tells you not to do it, then they are spreading the notion that people are, in fact, stockpiling, and that perhaps you should do it.

(You shouldn’t, by the way: supply chains in and out of the country remain in perfect working order and will continue to do so. There is no meaningful prospect that Covid-19 will prevent the flow of food into the country. In a hypothetical scenario in which the flow of food in the country were interrupted, you would not want to have a large backlog of food in any case – the violent mob justice meted out to those suspected of hoarding food during the Second World War is a good example of why.)

I think stockpiling partly reflects a failure of governments. In the countries where stockpiling has happened, it has been most severe where government messaging has been muddled or inconsistent, which has led to a fall-off in trust. I have written about that at detail on the NS website and elsewhere, however, and wanted to instead focus on another aspect: the media coverage of stockpiling.

Stockpiling is a difficult topic for the media to cover because it’s a lot like a run on a bank. A bank running out of funds and becoming insolvent is a serious issue that is of public concern but the act of reporting it can trigger copycat behaviour. It can also, if wrongly reported, actually trigger a destabilising panic.

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A similar trend may be taking place as far as stockpiling is concerned. It’s true that some supermarkets were experiencing visible shortages – but what some supermarket staff, both on the ground and in back offices believe, is that the initial run of shortages was driven not by selfish but sensible behaviour. Take, say, the smaller supermarkets outside most major train stations: your M&S Foods, Sainsbury’s Local or Little Waitrose or whatever. These are the supermarkets of choice for full-time professionals who do most of their food shopping on an ad-hoc basis and whose dinner plans are often driven by texts with their partner or conversations via a WhatsApp group.

These supermarkets are built, supplied and staffed around the idea that the clientele will buy say, a couple of “ripe and ready” avocados every few days, a single packet of mince, a bottle of wine every day, and a pint of milk one or twice a week.

What many people at these stores think happened at first is that the customers at these stores changed their habits to prepare for two weeks in self-isolation, which was too much for these smaller outlets – but because these areas are also rich in people with access to social media accounts, or are places where journalists with large followings live, pictures of empty shelves were quickly uploaded and then broadcast via the mainstream media.

It was only at that point that genuine panic and stockpiling started to spread. To put it in simple terms: a problem confined to the Tesco Metro by your nearest train station spread to the big out-of-town Sainsbury’s because of stories designed to stop people panic-buying. And it’s not clear to what extent we are even talking about significant amounts of panic-buying.

That impression from the shop floor is confirmed by the overall figurs – yes, it sounds like an awful lot to say the United Kingdom has spent an extra £1bn on food to eat at home in the past three weeks, but the United Kingdom spent £94bn on food in the course of 2019 – a little under £8bn a month.

When you consider that millions of people have been told to reduce their social contact and work from home and are having to calculate on the fly a) what they will need to eat for lunch, b) what extra evening meals they might have had at a friend’s or a restaurant c) make sure they can do the right thing and go into immediate self-isolation for two weeks, I am not convinced that the argument that stockpiling in the UK is primarily a story of selfishness and panic. In any case, as the retail economy moves away from supplying restaurants and pubs, the supply of food into shops will flow with even greater speed than it is now.

There is undoubtedly some panic, but just as many of the banks that were caught in the panic of the global financial crisis were in fact solvent, it’s not the underlying story here.

What should we do differently? As I say, it’s a challenge. The Little Waitrose in Vauxhall running out of food is a story and I don’t think we as journalists should pretend otherwise. Perhaps we should take a leaf out of another book: the Samaritans’ guidelines on how to report suicides. A suicide can, undoubtedly, be newsworthy and it should be covered. But the Samaritans’ guidelines, now near-universally observed in the media, are a good guide to balancing that public interest angle without spreading fear. Perhaps as a start we ought to always mention in any story about stockpiling that the delivery of food into the UK continues as normal?

There’s a role for the government here, too. Bluntly, one of the things that Boris Johnson has failed to do is impress upon much of the press that this crisis is a very different time, and while the policy and philosophy-based scrutiny that the opposition parties are largely doing very well should continue, it’s not helpful for the press to ask him to put a specific figure on when this may be over (though also he should have the sense to say so rather than give a specific figure).

But a code of conduct on how we report stockpiling has to come from either the industry or from civil society (as supermarkets and government have incentives to lie to us), so the challenge of stopping stockpiling is one for the press as well as governments.

I’m more than usually grateful to the huge number of supermarket workers, in both head office and on the shop floor, who helped me with this piece, and I owe a huge debt to Dan Davies’ thoughts on how to report bank runs, which I’ve heavily borrowed from.

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