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Exclusive: UK supermarkets may cut services to stay open as coronavirus spreads – sources

By James Davey and William James

LONDON (Reuters) – Britain’s major supermarkets are working on plans to streamline their operations by cutting cafes, counters and other services to enable a depleted workforce to maintain basic provisions during the coronavirus outbreak, industry sources told Reuters.

The country’s supermarket sector, including market leader Tesco <TSCO.L>, Sainsbury’s <SBRY.L>, Asda <WMT.N> and Morrisons <MRW.L>, has struggled for more than a week to keep shelves stocked as shoppers panic-buy items such as dried pasta, canned food, toilet rolls and hand sanitizer.

Shop bosses have said trading levels have been close to those seen in the pre-Christmas rush, the busiest time of the year. Online grocery operations have also been running at capacity.

Executives are working on plans to keep the stores running if large numbers of their staff become ill or if the outbreak forces the closure of nurseries and schools, which would escalate workers’ child care needs.

“What (products) we can and can’t get is the least of our current challenges,” one British supermarket executive told Reuters on condition of anonymity.

The person said more pressing problems would be how to staff stores and how to give practical help to the elderly and vulnerable when the virus takes deeper hold of the population.

A government decision to close all schools would be “a binary moment,” the person added. It’s a step the British government has so far resisted.

Another source at a supermarket group said planning was focused on: “What would it take to keep the store running?”

The source said this could involve a more streamlined operation in individual stores that would keep them running with fewer staff.

Options could include temporarily closing in-store cafes and fresh food counters.

Health officials have said 36 people have died from coronavirus in Britain, while the total diagnosed was 1,543.

The government has forecast the virus will peak in 10 to 14 weeks’ time.

The supermarket industry says it is working closely with government and suppliers to keep food moving through the system and is making more deliveries to stores to get shelves re-stocked. But it has also appealed to customers to be more considerate.

“Generally there’s plenty of supply in supermarkets but it is just the levels of panic-buying, particularly in some categories, that are occasionally causing issues,” the second source said.

There are also bottlenecks in the distribution chain.

“You’ve only got so many trucks and so much picking ability within the suppliers’ warehouses and depots. And then have you got enough people in the stores, once it arrives, to actually replenish the items on shelf?”

(Reporting by James Davey and William James; Editing by Kirsten Donovan and Barbara Lewis)