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.

The tinned food renaissance continues apace

Figures from Kantar reveal that overall sales of canned food soared by 72.6%, to £313.2m, in March 2020 compared with the same time last year. Although the initial increase in sales was likely due to citizens stocking up on long-life supplies in the immediate run-up to lockdown, a number of brands are hoping to persuade consumers to continue to buy tinned goods. The ‘Love Canned Food Festival’ is due to take place on Instagram over four days this week, and will be the UK’s first festival devoted solely to canned food. Virtual visitors will be urged to help families struggling with food insecurity by making a donation to its charity partner, FareShare.  

Concerns grow for the future of health improvement as PHE restructuring continues

The news that Public Health England is to be merged with the NHS Track and Trace Services to create a new health protection agency, the National Institute for Health Protection (NIHP), has been met with concern from many in the public health community.  PHE currently works on both health protection and health improvement programmes. Jeremy Ferrer, a member of SAGE and Director of the Wellcome Trust, criticised the announcement as short-sighted and premature ahead of the official enquiry into the Government’s response to Covid-19. His remarks came amid fears of widespread job losses when PHE is merged into a new body – up to 800 PHE staff who specialise in tackling obesity, smoking and alcohol misuse could be at risk, sources at the agency told the Guardian.

The British Dietetic Association has separately released a statement  expressing  serious reservations following the announcement. BDA Chair Caroline Bovey, RD said: 

“We are concerned this move could have far reaching public health implications. The suggestion seems to be that the work of PHE will be spread out at a local level with a national body looking at disease control only. PHE leads on vital work tackling health inequality in England. We believe this work requires a nationally co-ordinated approach.”

It remains to be seen what changes to PHE mean for the Government’s recent Obesity Strategy. 

A new policy brief from World Obesity calls for states to include nutrition strategies when developing Covid-19 national responses and guidelines

A new policy brief by World Obesity has highlighted the bidirectional relationship between Covid-19 and obesity. Obesity is a risk factor for more severe outcomes of the coronavirus even as Covid-19 continues to negatively impact on food systems, diet, physical activity and mental health globally, thus potentially increasing the risk of non-communicable diseases for many. The dossier includes an overview of those countries who have made reference to people categorised as living with severe obesity (BMI > 40), calling for wider acknowledgement of the link between Covid-19 and obesity.   

Women bearing the brunt of Covid-19 globally

The charity, CARE, have published a new report highlighting how Covid-19 has impacted on women and food insecurity; ‘Left Out and Left Behind’. The report finds that although food insecurity is on the rise globally (with food insecurity tripling in Latin America and at least 6 million people in the USA having registered for food benefits since the start of the pandemic), women have been disproportionately affected.  

In Mali for example, curfews related to the pandemic restrict the times women work in the fields, but not the hours men work, so women have struggled more with food production. As a result, reports of women turning to transactional sex and families resorting to child marriage to deal with the economic effects of Covid-19 are on the rise. CARE’s analysis of 73 global reports proposing solutions to the hunger pandemic found that 46% do not refer to women and girls at all, highlighting the need to make policy-making more gender sensitive. 

July CPI data shows food prices have fallen, including retail prices of fruit and veg

The Consumer Price Index for the month of July showed a surprise overall rise in inflation (1.1% in July 2020, up from 0.8% in June 2020), with food one of the few sectors to offset this trend with retail prices declining from June to July. The overall rise in inflation has been put down to the continued opening up of the economy following the easing of lockdown restrictions, with the recreation and culture category showing the largest increase in inflation as leisure sites and similar venues began to reopen.

Food prices fell by 0.3% this year, compared with a rise of 0.1% a year ago. Fruit and vegetables have in part contributed to this downward trend, with analysis of CPI data by the Food Foundation showing that prices of fruit fell by 2.26% month on month in July, with vegetables also falling slightly (0.53%).

Prices of both fruit and vegetables were also down compared to January 2019, suggesting Covid-19 continues to influence retail prices, with a recent article in the Grocer suggesting that this may be due to retailers setting the agenda on price. It remains to be seen what the impact of Brexit will be once the UK leaves the EU at the end of 2020.  

Supermarket sales growth slows as lockdown ends

The latest figures from Kantar reveal that take-home grocery sales growth slowed to 14.4% year on year during the 12 weeks to 9 August 2020 – with consumers spending the lowest amounts seen since February as the Out of Home sector continues to reopen. Sales growth is still significantly up compared to this time last year however. The introduction of face coverings appears to have impacted on consumer confidence, with the number of supermarket trips two million lower than would have usually been expected in the week after the rule was adopted, with many not feeling safe in store. Online shopping continues to gain traction, with 13.5% of all sales now ordered through the internet.  Although grocery sales seem to suggest a renewed focus on health, with sales of vitamins and minerals growing by 34%, while herbal teas were up by 19% and nuts by 21%, sales of alcohol remained high and increasing by 28.3% over the past four weeks. 

Depression doubles during pandemic

Recent survey findings from the Office for National Statistics show that twice as many adults in Britain are reporting symptoms of depression compared with this time last year. The survey of 3,500 people over 12 months found that one in five people appeared to have depressive symptoms compared with one in ten before the pandemic. The survey used a standardised questionnaire for assessing symptoms of depression, although it should be noted it is not the same as a medical diagnosis as such. People under 40, women, people with a disability and those who said they would struggle to meet significant unexpected costs were the groups most likely to show symptoms of depression, possibly reflecting an increased risk of job losses and other major life stresses due to Covid-19.

NFU predicts wheat yields will fall by a third this year following extreme weather

The National Farmer’s Union (NFU) have predicted UK wheat yields could be down by as much as third this year – the worst harvest since the 1980s – due to extreme weather conditions. The damp weather in February followed by the mini-heatwave and thunderstorms in August, has led to some predicting a 30-35% decline in wheat that can be harvested. That would leave the UK as a net importer of grain rather than a net exporter this year, something of concern as the UK prepares to fully leave the EU.  

Reports suggest major shake-up at PHE

Reports over the weekend suggest that Public Health England (PHE) is to be merged with the NHS Test and Trace scheme, amidst reports that Ministers have been unhappy with the way PHE responded to the coronavirus crisis. PHE have been criticised for not scaling up community testing and tracing during the initial months of the pandemic, although many have criticised the recent announcement and suggested that the government are using PHE (an agency of DHSC) as a scapegoat for criticism of their handling of Covid-19. It remains to be seen what will happen to those departments within PHE that do not directly work on infectious disease control, such as the evidence review and nutrition teams.