Britain tells shoppers food is plentiful despite freight halt

LONDON (Reuters) – Britain said food was plentiful on Tuesday despite freight routes to mainland Europe remaining cut off, and people should not worry about supermarkets running out in the last few days before their traditional Christmas feast.

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Tesco and Sainsbury’s, Britain’s two biggest supermarket groups, warned on Monday that gaps would start to appear on shelves within days if freight deliveries were not quickly restored.

“I don’t think anybody should be worried – there is plenty of food in our shops,” interior minister Priti Patel told the LBC radio station on Tuesday.

Freight from France is being disrupted as part of a wider suspension of travel links with Britain to try to curb a new faster spreading strain of COVID-19.

British supermarkets are facing record Christmas demand due to COVID-19 restrictions on the hospitality industry and on travel and there were fears of panic buying.

The British Retail Consortium (BRC), which represents more than 170 major retailers including the big supermarkets, said while supplies were plentiful for Christmas there could be problems in store shortly after.

It said fresh produce such as salad, vegetables and fruit including raspberries and strawberries could be in short supply.

“The borders really need to be running pretty much freely from tomorrow to assure us that there won’t be any disruption,” Andrew Opie, the BRC’s director of food and sustainability, told BBC radio.

He noted that 90% of the lettuces consumed by Britons and about 70% of soft fruit comes through the Channel ports at this time of year.

The BBC cited France’s Europe Minister Clément Beaune as saying that Britain and France would announce a deal to restart freight by Wednesday. One option is to roll out mass testing for truck drivers.

“Whatever is agreed, we need to be careful it doesn’t add too much friction to the supply chain which in itself causes disruption by causing delays to the drivers whilst they’re being tested,” said Opie.

Though large queues again snaked around supermarkets across Britain on Tuesday, food retailers said they had not seen any major changes in buying behaviour.

“You need to remember these are the busiest days for shopping…and remember all the stores are still operating all of their COVID protocols which means you can’t get as many people into a supermarket as you would do normally,” Opie said.

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