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Coronavirus: Supermarkets can now share staff, depots and data to help 'feed the nation'

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A shopper passes empty shelves at a Tesco supermarket in London, Britain: EPA
A shopper passes empty shelves at a Tesco supermarket in London, Britain: EPA

Supermarkets will be able to collaborate to ensure shelves are stocked with food throughout the coronavirus pandemic after the government relaxed competition rules on Thursday night.

Responding to an extraordinary surge in panic buying that saw many shops stripped bare, ministers announced that supermarket chains will be allowed to pool their resources such as delivery depots and vans from next week as part of plans to keep the nation fed.

Companies are usually forbidden from working together in order to prevent shoppers from getting a bad deal.

But as supermarkets were forced to implement rationing after anxious consumers stockpiled essentials to prepare for an extended period of self-isolation, the government was forced to act.

Under the emergency rules, food retailers can share data with each other about stock levels, cooperate to help keep stores open and co-ordinate closure days to allow more time for restocking.

From Friday, delivery drivers will be able to drive for up to 11 hours a day rather than 10 hours.

It came after the prime minister used Thursday’s coronavirus briefing to urge people to be “reasonable” when buying groceries.

“As I said before, we’ve got good supply chains farm to fork – there’s no reason for the shops really to be empty,” Mr Johnson said.

“Please be reasonable in your shopping, be considerate and thoughtful for others as you do it”.

George Eustice, the environment secretary, met with supermarket bosses on Thursday to hammer out a plan to deal with the problem, saying afterwards that the government would “do whatever it takes to help them feed the nation”.

“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,” he added.

“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.”

Supermarket giants including Tesco and Sainsbury’s have issued their own pleas this week for shoppers to buy only what they need. A number of major chains introduced rationing as stocks in some stores ran dry.

The competition watchdog welcomed the new rules but warned firms not to take advantage of the coronavirus pandemic to boost profits.

The Competition and Markets Authority said it “will not tolerate unscrupulous businesses exploiting the crisis as a ‘cover’ for non-essential collusion”.

“This includes exchanging information on longer-term pricing or business strategies, where this is not necessary to meet the needs of the current situation.”

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