The Big Picture

How is COVID-19 affecting how we feed ourselves?

COVID-19 is having a significant impact on the UK food system. To understand what this will mean for citizens, we’ll be monitoring trajectories for these variables:

  • Infection and mortality rates – how will infection and vaccine developments unfold, and will these be mirrored in food system changes?
  • Civil cohesion and food poverty – will we see civil unrest if people struggle to afford food and prices rise?
  • Food prices – how will supply chains be affected; will export bans lead to price rises and shortages; will domestic production increase and will average prices of fruit, vegetables and other staple foods increase as a result?
  • Fruit and vegetable sales

Follow system-wide developments here as we track shifting challenges and demands, and look at how coronavirus-driven change is reflected in the food system.

Return to our homepage to view the COVID-19 Tracker in full.

Evidence emerging of a global increase in suicide rates

The Economist has warned that lockdown and social distancing measures may be contributing to increased feelings of loneliness, isolation, and suicidal ideation. A survey conducted in August by America’s Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that one in ten of the 5,400 respondents had seriously considered suicide in the previous month—about twice as many who had thought of taking their lives in 2018.

For young adults, aged 18 to 24, the proportion considering suicide rose to one in four. With most countries reporting suicides with a time lag it is too early to say for certain whether this will translate into attempted suicides, but globally many countries are reporting an increase. Japan reported a 15.3% increase in suicides this August compared to the same period of time in 2019, with Thailand and Nepal also reporting increases.

Men are particularly at risk of suicide, with the rising unemployment rates caused by Covid-19 a concern.  A study in the Lancet estimated that a 1% rise in unemployment would lead to a 0.79% climb in suicide in Europe and a 0.99% increase in America where unemployment benefits are less generous.  

Surgeons warn of ‘tsunami’ of delayed operations as Covid cases continue to climb

The Royal College of Surgeons of England have said they doubt the NHS can meet targets to restore surgery back to near pre-pandemic levels, warning of a ‘tsunami’ of delayed operations as hospital admissions due to Covid-19 continue to rise. In July, the NHS told hospitals that by September 2020 they should be performing at least 80% of their pre-covid planned procedures and by October, this proportion should rise to 90%. However, with a great many planned and routine operations delayed over the summer as a result of Covid-19, the most recent NHS data suggests that a backlog remains with more than two million people having been waiting longer than 18 weeks for routine operations.

UK food and drink exports drop for first time since 2015

A new report published by the Food and Drink Federation (FDF) has revealed that British exports of food and drink fell for the first time since 2015. Compared to the same period last year, exports fell by 13.8% to £9.7Billion. The fall in exports has been linked to the global impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, although Brexit continues to create uncertainty for many producers and exporters. 

A quarter of nutrition professionals report losing work during Covid-19, despite government focus on obesity

Despite the recent launch of the government’s Better Health campaign following on from the Obesity Strategy, a poll conducted by Nutrition Talent has found that a quarter of nutrition professionals reported having lost work during the pandemic.

Nutrition Talent conducted a poll with UK nutrition professionals working in a range of different organisations finding that employment status remained the same as before Covid-19 for only 60% of respondents. A quarter were furloughed, had their hours reduced, found it more difficult to find consultancy work, or were made redundant.

Dr Danielle McCarthy, co-founder of Nutrition Talent noted that qualified registered nutritionists play a key role in helping workplaces, councils, food manufacturers and retailers reach their goals: “We can collectively help our society live more healthily, reducing the risk of many diet-related conditions.”

Frozen food continues to outperform fresh and chilled foods

The latest statistics released by Kantar and the British Frozen Food Federation show that sales of frozen food continue to rise following Covid-19. In the three months following June 8th, sales of frozen food increased by 13.6% with volume up by 9.9%. Frozen food continues to outperform the grocery market (and fresh and chilled categories) as a whole in both value and volume, with the category adding £617 million in sales value in the 52 week period ending September 6th 2020. The figures show that six categories of frozen food have seen double digit growth, including frozen vegetables, fish, and pizza. 

GLOPAN launches second foresight report on food systems

The Global Panel for Agriculture and Nutrition have published their second foresight report, urging action to ensure a higher standard of nutrition for a ‘better tomorrow‘. The evidence-based report offers policy solutions to improve the quality of diets using a food systems approach through promoting availability, accessibility, affordability, desirability, and sustainably, healthy diets for all.

The report estimates that 3 billion people globally are currently unable to afford even the cheapest, locally available healthy diets with 11 million dying from nutrition related chronic diseases every year. With Covid-19 having highlighted the fragility of the food system and pushing millions into food poverty, the report makes a number of suggestions for changing the food system. 

New survey from the British Nutrition Foundation shows children and adults feeling healthier as lockdown restrictions ease

A new survey from the BNF, released as part of Healthy Eating Week 2020, has revealed that 50% of primary school children and 26% of secondary school students say that they feel better or healthier now that they are back at school. 27% of adults report that they feel more healthy since lockdown restrictions were eased (July) compared with the stricter lockdown earlier this year.

This survey follows on from a previous BNF survey in June, and finds that many are still reporting increased snacking and finding solace in ‘comfort foods’ as a response to increased feelings of anxiety. Nearly half (46%) of adults and 43% of secondary school students said that they have consumed more chocolate when feeling tired, stressed, bored or anxious throughout the COVID-19 outbreak, with similar patterns observed for crisps and snacks. Well over a third (35%) of all adults say that they have consumed more alcohol when feeling tired, stressed, bored or anxious during the pandemic. 

UK inflation falls during August

This month’s Consumer Price Index (CPI) update shows that the 12-month inflation rate fell to 0.5% in August 2020, down from 1.1% in July 2020. Reduced prices in restaurants as a result of the Eat Out to Help Out Scheme resulted in the largest downward contribution (0.44 %) to the index, with airplane prices also falling. This leaves the 12-month inflation rate at its lowest level since 2015. Food and drink prices also fell compared to this time last year, although August prices were 0.1% up on July. Analysis by the Food Foundation of fruit and vegetable retail prices using CPI data, found that the price of vegetables fell by 1.44% between July and August with fruit prices also slightly down (0.11%). Exceptions included the price of apples and pears which rose by 5% and 11.56% respectively from July to August. The price of tinned tomatoes, which rose during lockdown following shortages caused by soaring demand and supply issues in Italy, fell by 3.77%, – the first fall in price since March. 

Alcohol issues soar during lockdown

The Royal College of Psychiatrists (RCP) is warning that alcohol addiction services might struggle to cope with the ‘soaring numbers’ of people misusing alcohol. They pointed to data finding that in June, more than 8.4m people in England were drinking at higher-risk levels, up from 4.8m in February. While Covid-19 has impacted on alcohol consumption patterns. the RCP also pointed to funding cuts for addiction services as problematic. A spokesperson from the drug, alcohol and mental health charity We Are With You said: “Social isolation and a lack of a human connection is a big factor behind why some people turn to alcohol as a coping mechanism, so clearly the pandemic continues to be really tough for many people.