By James Davey and Dylan Martinez
LONDON, March 18 (Reuters) - Panic buying by British shoppers escalated on Wednesday with shelves stripped bare by alarmed customers hoarding for the coronavirus isolation, prompting Tesco and Sainsbury's to restrict purchases.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who has faced criticism for acting too slowly and too cautiously to tackle the coronavirus outbreak, said on Tuesday that there was no reason to stockpile and that food supplies were safe.
In supermarkets across the land, though, shoppers were spooked. Aisle after aisle were left empty with just ice cream and chocolate Easter eggs remaining at many major stores. Huge queues snaked around some supermarkets on Wednesday, Reuters reporters said.
"It's getting worse," said a source at one of Britain's major supermarket groups.
Sainsbury's is to restrict customer purchases to combat panic buying. Tesco is allowing shoppers to purchase just two packs of certain items such as dried pasta, toilet roll and long life milk.
Britain's big grocers, including market leader Tesco , Sainsbury's, Asda, and Morrisons , along with discounters Aldi and Lidl, have struggled for over a week to keep shelves stocked.
"We have enough food coming into the system, but are limiting sales so that it stays on shelves for longer and can be bought by a larger numbers of customers," Sainsbury's Chief Executive Mike Coupe said in a letter to customers.
Aldi on Monday became the first UK grocer to introduce rationing, limiting customers to buying four items of any one product during each visit.
Morrisons cautioned it was facing extraordinary times.
"We are currently facing unprecedented challenges and uncertainty dealing with COVID-19," the company's chairman Andrew Higginson, and its CEO David Potts said.
The supermarket industry says it is working closely with suppliers to keep food moving through the system and is making more deliveries to stores to get shelves re-stocked.
It says supplies are still coming in from Europe, despite lock-downs in Italy, Spain and France.
One executive said the government was only just starting to understand the enormity of the crisis for the industry.
"They're in asking questions mode, they're certainly not in telling us anything mode. They're trying to understand what we're seeing rather than telling us to do anything specific."
The second source added: "Government are asking questions, listening and planning, but we'd appreciate a bit more help to get things moving."
The source said the government could help by lifting restrictions on driver hours and relaxing Groceries Supply Code of Practice (GSCOP) regulations which slow the industry down.
Reuters reported on Monday that supermarket groups are working on plans to streamline their operations by cutting cafes, counters and other services to enable a depleted workforce to maintain basic provisions. (Writing by Guy Faulconbridge; editing by Kate Holton)