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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.

Latest CPI data shows fruit and food prices rose in October

The latest report from the Office of National Statistics (ONS) on UK inflation has found that the 12-month inflation rate, as measured by the Consumer Prices Index, was 0.7% in October 2020, up from 0.5% in September. Food was one of three sectors contributing the most to the upward trend (alongside clothing and furniture, furnishings and carpets), with the largest downward trend – unsurprisingly perhaps, given the second wave of lockdowns – coming from recreation and culture. Food prices rose between September and October, with most of the rise coming from fruit and potatoes/tubers. Analysis from the Food Foundation shows that, although food prices rose month on month, prices remain below 2019 levels. However, the rise in October is notable, particularly with the possibility of a no-deal Brexit in January looking increasingly likely.

Food Foundation analysis shows that the retail price of fruit rose 1.15% in October compared to the preceding month, with September also seeing a 1.62% increase in the cost of fruit compared to August.  Seasonal fruits including melon, strawberries and raspberries all saw the largest price rises. The price of those vegetables monitored by the Food Foundation decreased by – 1.34% in October compared to September, but this excludes tubers and potatoes, which saw an increase of 0.82% between September and October. 

Week round up: 11/11/2020

As England entered the second week of Lockdown 2.0 and Wales exited their two week circuit break, stock markets globally rebounded on news that a Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine has performed well in trials, with a roll-out mooted for the end of 2020. Interestingly, stocks which have been most affected by Covid, such as British Airways, rebounded while Covid ‘winners’ such as Ocado and Zoom lost value.

Despite the continued four week lockdown in England, a return to the levels of panic buying seen in March 2020 in anticipation of the first lockdown failed to materialise despite retailer concernsSales of loo roll did however increase and many retailers saw a sales spike, with Kantar data finding that supermarket sales across the UK grew by 9.4% in the four weeks to 1 November. Supply chains have however  been able to cope thus far.

Nevertheless, data continues to show that lockdown has impacted on citizen shopping and eating patterns. Perhaps unsurprisingly, ‘comfort foods’ and baking are proving particularly popular, with The Grocer reporting that sales of sugar increased 74% in the first week of November compared to the same week in 2019. Premier Foods, the owners of Mr. Kipling cakes and Ambrosia Custard, this week also reported that they have gained over a million new customers over the past six months, with “exceptional” demand resulting in profits for the six months to September up 50% at £47.7m.

The Co-operative, speaking this week about food trends as a result of Covid-19, predict that online is likely to continue to grow with demand for more sustainable food, frozen, and long-life also potentially here to stay.

With infections and deaths in the UK from Covid-19 continuing to increase, the Health Foundation have launched a Covid-19 impact enquiry, intended to explore how people’s experience of the pandemic has been influenced by their health and existing inequalities, and how the response to the virus impacts people’s health and health inequalities – both now and in the future. People from the poorest communities have been 50% more likely to die from Covid-19 than those from the most affluent communities, with people living with a disability 2-3 times more likely to die from Covid-19 than those without a disability.

Despite such evidence highlighting the role of pre-existing health and socio-economic inequality, there continues to be interest in the role of vitamin D for reducing the risk of Covid-19. Although the emerging evidence is thus far only suggestive, the Telegraph this week reported that Ministers are drawing up plans for four-month supplies of the vitamin to be delivered directly to care home residents in England and those deemed to be clinically extremely vulnerable.

Lockdown had major impact on UK mental health

New research from the University of Glasgow has found the UK’s mental health was significantly impacted in the initial few weeks following lockdown in March. The study, which surveyed 3,000 people, is the most detailed research to date examining the impact of Covid-19 on mental health. The research found that women and young persons were most at risk, with suicidal thoughts increasing from 8% to 10% and rising from 12.5% to 14% among young adults. These figures only show the immediate impact of Covid-19 on mental health so it remains to be seen what the medium to long-term outcomes will be. The Department of Health says it is increasing investment in mental health services.                 

New report shows that grocery inflation levels have returned to pre-pandemic levels

The latest report in a series looking at the impact of Covid-19 on food prices from the Institute for Fiscal Studies (funded by the Nuffield Foundation and the Economic and Social Research Council) has found that after initial inflation for groceries of 2.5% in the first month of lockdown in March, grocery prices declined throughout the summer.

By the first week of August, the price level for groceries was just 0.5% higher than it was at the beginning of 2020. The report uses data from Kantar until 9th August, finding that the initial rise in grocery prices was mostly driven by a 15% fall in the frequency of price promotions. This was due to retailers attempted to manage dwindling supplies in the face of increased demand, as the Out of Home sector was forced to close and citizen anxiety levels increased. The initial surge in inflation occurred much more in larger supermarkets (Tesco, Sainsbury’s, etc.), where promotion levels were cut back, than in discounter supermarkets (Lidl, Aldi, etc.). Prices gradually fell throughout the summer as price promotions returned to normal levels. Interestingly, the initial 8% reduction in the range of grocery products bought, which occurred in March, has persisted, suggesting an ongoing reduction in consumer choice.                 

Inflation increases but retail food prices fall again

Data released this month on September Consumer Price Index (CPI) showed that inflation rose slightly between August and September, but remained lower than it was at the start of the year. The UK’s inflation rate, which tracks the prices of goods and services, climbed to 0.5% in September from 0.2% in August. The rise in inflation has been attributed to the end of the government’s Eat Out To Help Out scheme which led to a rise in restaurant and cafe prices after the end of the discount scheme. The retail price of food and drink items however fell slightly between August and September, a downward contribution to September’s inflation rates; prices fell by 0.7% compared with a smaller fall of 0.2% a year ago. Both fruit and vegetable prices decreased slightly. 

Latest WRAP rolling survey shows food waste remains down on 2019 levels but higher than during early lockdown

The latest rolling survey conducted by food waste NGOWRAP, shows that self-reported food waste levels have stabilised at June levels. Food waste dropped substantially in the early months of lockdown (March to May) but then partially rebounded in the Summer when lockdown first began to ease. Levels of food waste have now plateaued but remain down on levels reported in November 2019. Levels of food waste are higher among those returning to ‘normal’ (e.g. children returned to school, or those returning to work), casting doubt on the theory that some positive Covid behaviours will persist, and highlighting the risk of a rapid return to pre-lockdown levels of food waste once the pandemic is over.                 

Average basket fears subside as retailers drop rationing restrictions

Fears of a return to retail restrictions on buying certain in-demand grocery items subsided as September’s increase in average basket size stabilised. Data showed per-basket spending soared during the last full week of September – the biggest week-on-week increase since Spring’s lockdown, following a tightening of restrictions by the government and anticipation of a second national lockdown as Covid-19 cases continue to rise. Research by Dunhumby however, shows average basket size has since decreased from September’s highs in the first week of October, although ‘items per basket’ was still up 25% compared with the same week in 2019. This data follows Waitrose and Morrisons dropping rationing rules brought in during September.                 

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.