Eustice says government refrained from direct intervention to not make panic-buying worse

Shoppers queue at a supermarket, as the number of coronavirus cases grow around the world, in London, Britain March 15, 2020. REUTERS/Dylan Martinez/File Photo

The British government held back from telling shoppers to stop panic-buying groceries in the early days of the coronavirus crisis, fearing any direct intervention would have made matters worse, Environment Secretary George Eustice said on Tuesday.

From mid-March, UK store shelves were stripped of items like dried pasta, canned food, flour, toilet rolls and hand sanitiser as frantic shoppers prepared for possible isolation during the pandemic.

Eustice told lawmakers on parliament’s Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee that the government was aware by March 6 that Britain faced “a panic-buying episode” but resisted formal intervention until the minister fronted the government’s daily news conference on March 21 and appealed for it to stop.

“I would defend what we did and why we did it,” he said.

“What we know from all the behavioural research that has been done is that nothing gets panic-buying going better than government coming out and saying ‘don’t panic’, it’s a sort of Captain Mainwaring type approach,” Eustice said – referencing a character in television sitcom “Dad’s Army.”

“All the evidence is if you actually want to avoid spurring panic-buying the best thing is for it not to be talked about or covered at all,” he said.

Eustice said the government left it to the industry to deliver the message and only intervened when it became clear “we had nothing to lose because panic-buying was at full tilt.”

He was not worried that food supplies could be disrupted if no trade deal is agreed with the EU by the end-December deadline.

“We’re more confident than ever that we need not worry too much about the end of the transition period,” he said.