Covid-19: Competition law relaxed allowing grocers to share data and delivery

UK supermarkets will be allowed to exchange data on stock levels, share warehouse space and delivery vans, and team up to serve consumers in this time of crisis, after the government temporarily relaxed elements of competition law late yesterday (19 March).

The measures, which were announced by the environment secretary, George Eustice, will also allow retailers to pool staff with one another to help meet demand.

It comes as panic buying and consumer fear that the UK is going into lockdown to halt the spread of the coronavirus, Covid-19, continue to put unprecedented pressure on the grocery industry.

Eustice confirmed elements of the law would be temporarily waived during a meeting with CEOs from the UK’s leading supermarkets and food industry representatives.

Rules around drivers’ hours have also been relaxed, enabling retailers to deliver more food to grocery stores. The 5p plastic bag charge for online purchases has also temporarily been halted “to speed up deliveries."

“We’ve listened to the powerful arguments of our leading supermarkets and will do whatever it takes to help them feed the nation,” explained Eustice.

“By relaxing elements of competition laws temporarily, our retailers can work together on their contingency plans and share the resources they need with each other during these unprecedented circumstances.”

The minister commended the industry and the measures it has already taken to keep shelves stocked and supply chains resilient, as the pandemic has caused pandemonium in the aisles of many shops around the country.

Business secretary, Alok Sharma, added: “In these extraordinary and challenging times it is important that we remove barriers to our supermarkets working together to serve customers, particularly those who are elderly, ill or vulnerable in all parts of the UK.”

Andrew Opie, director of food & sustainability at the British Retail Consortium trade association, said the move would bring greater flexibility to the industry.

“Retailers have been working hard to ensure shelves are stocked and this is an exceptional step taken by government to help retailers and their suppliers cope with problems that might be caused by widescale absences across the supply chain,” he noted.

“This is a short-term measure, in the spirit of working together, and will allow retailers to agree common specifications for products to bolster food production, and co-ordinate certain operations to ensure customers anywhere in the UK have access to the essential items they need.”

Legislation will be laid shortly to amend elements of the Competition Act 1998, in line with these announcements.

In this time of crisis the retail industry and the grocery sector, in particular, have been proactive in their support of the British public. Earlier this week, they published a joint letter to consumers requesting them to remain calm, assuring them the supply of food and essential goods is in place for everyone, as long as people do not stockpile.

Major supermarkets have also introduced reserved shopping times for the elderly and vulnerable, and amended online pages to allow those in self-isolation or people who are social distancing, having contracted the virus or in an attempt to avoid catching it, to communicate their specific delivery requirements when making an order.