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.

Consumers switch to plant-based options in the face of meat and dairy shortages

Data from Kantar looking at the three months spanning February to April this year have found that sales of plant-based alternatives have surged. Sales of meat alternatives are up 25.3% year on year, with milk alternatives up 28.3%. A recent survey by the Vegan Society found  that 21.5% said they had cut down meat consumption during lockdown, with 15% saying they had cut down on dairy and eggs. 41% of those who had reduced their meat and dairy intakes said this was due to availability problems, with 43% citing environmental, ethical and health reasons.

UK food manufacturers push back against 14-day quarantine plan

The UK’s five key manufacturing sectors, including the food and drink industry, have warned of the potential for further job losses and supply chain shortages following the government’s 14 day quarantine ruling on travelling to the UK. Ian Wright, chief executive of the Food and Drink Federation, said there were “major concerns” that such a scheme would cut off the expertise needed to maintain the specialist machinery and equipment used in UK factories. The quarantine scheme is designed to prevent a second wave of coronavirus infections as part of the government’s easing of lockdown measures.


Calls for UK to set up a committee to coordinate food policy during Covid-19

City University has called on the government to set-up a cross-government committee to coordinate food policy actions and responses to the Coronavirus pandemic. Pointing to analysis that shows ‘at least’ 16 different departments within the government currently have some responsibility for UK food, the Centre for Food Policy at City University has urged the government to adopt a less siloed and more coordinated approach.

European surveys suggest Covid-19 is impacting on eating habits

A survey of 23,000 people has found that 72% of European shoppers said they would make ‘greater attempts’ to eat and drink more healthily in the future as a direct result of their Covid-19 experience. However, shifts in citizen attitudes to food continue to be debated. It is not clear whether these self-reported intentions are reflected in actual behaviour. In a separate study, a survey in the Netherlands of over 1,000 Dutch adults found that most (83%) reported eating much the same as they had before Coronavirus. While 10% reported eating more healthily, 7% reported the opposite, citing boredom as their main reason for eating less healthily.

The average monthly percentage change in average retail prices (CPI) for UK fruit and vegetables

With Covid-19 continuing to impact on all parts of the food system and with the potential to impact on UK imports and exports of food, we’ll be monitoring the Consumer Price Index (CPI) average retail price data every month to track average UK food prices.

We’ll be focussing on fruit and vegetable prices, as we know that these are an important part of a healthy diet but are typically more expensive per kilocalorie than other more energy dense foods. As perishable items that are often heavily dependent on seasonal horticultural labour, they are also vulnerable to price fluctuations.

We first compared average percentage changes in price over 12 months compared to a fixed point in time (January 2019). We’ve done this for fruits, vegetables, and all foods in the CPI basket (143 items that have been consistently measured since January 2019).

We’ve also looked at month-on-month price changes for 2020 so far for fruit and vegetables. Here we’ve compared the month-on-month average percentage price change of all items in each category (fruit and veg) compared to the same month-on month average percentage price change in 2019.

To date, average retail prices of fruit and veg appear to have dropped very slightly since the start of the year. It will be interesting to see whether this trend persists as we enter the harvest season for the Northern Hemisphere.


Call for public inquiry into BAME death risk


More than 70 public figures are calling for a full independent public inquiry into deaths from Covid-19 among people from ethnic minority backgrounds, following data from the Office of National Statistics (ONS) showing that black men and women are twice as likely to die from the virus as white men and women. People from Indian, Bangladeshi and Pakistani communities also had a significantly higher risk of dying. It is not yet clear exactly why this is the case, with the effect persisting even after some other risk factors such as age have been taken into account, but further research may identify a role for social and economic inequalities.



Health campaign group calls for halt on ‘unhealthy’ ads until end of lockdown

Action on Salt and Sugar, a public health campaign group, have published an open letter calling for a halt in advertising of high fat, salt and sugar foods (HFSS) until the end of lockdown. Pointing to the economic effects of Covid-19 and their likely effect on long-term health, the campaign group have asked food and drink companies to voluntarily halt their advertising of less healthy foods until June 5th. They argue that the lockdown period has seen certain food, drink, and delivery brands “capitalising on the government’s ‘Stay home’ message by heavily promoting unhealthy food, even to the most vulnerable members of society, who are now a captive audience with little opportunity to leave the house or to get much exercise”.

The Bank of England warns a deep recession may be on the horizon 

The Bank of England has warned that the coronavirus pandemic will push the UK economy into its deepest recession on record. Based on an assumption that lockdown will be relaxed in June, it predicted the economy was on course to shrink by 14% this year given Covid-19’s ongoing impact on jobs and incomes. Policy makers voted unanimously to keep interest rates at a record low of 0.1%, with debate ongoing in the financial sector as to whether fiscal stimulus packages such as quantitative easing (as in 2008) ought to be brought in or not. 

Waitrose report uncovers changes to shopping habits during lockdown

Waitrose and John Lewis have conducted a poll of 2,000 people and supplemented the results with data from the retail group to reveal changing shopping and eating habits during lockdown. Their customer base, largely made up of higher-income households, has returned to larger weekly shops (a trend being seen across the retail sector), and a diverse set of behaviours have been captured. 50% are saying that they are working harder to use store cupboard ingredients and not waste food, while 38% report snacking more, 26% experimenting with different ingredients and 19% sitting at the table together for more meals.  Alcohol consumption has also increased: of those that drink, 25% reported drinking more (with tequila sales soaring by 175% during lockdown), and liqueurs are up 78% as consumers try new cocktails.