By Sarah Bates
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‘Just in time’ production for profit to blame for empty supermarket shelves

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Issue 2697
The Tesco distribution centre in Dagenham, east London
The Tesco distribution centre in Dagenham, east London (Pic: N Chadwick/

The Tories are trying to deflect blame for food shortages at supermarkets onto ordinary people.

Environment secretary George Eustice used the government’s daily press briefing last Saturday to tell people to “calm down” and “only buy what they need”. “Be responsible when you shop and think of others,” he said.

“Buying more than you need means others may be left without.”

Stephen Powis, NHS England’s national medical director, declared that “we should all be ashamed” of reports that health workers can’t access supplies.

It is a cynical attempt to divert blame from the top of society onto the vast majority of people who are attempting to follow government advice.

The British Retail Consortium said that people had bought an extra £1 billion worth of food in the last three weeks. The figure has been used as an example of shameless hoarding and dangerous levels of stockpiling.

But it equates to around £15 extra per person.

It’s understandable that people are buying more food and supplies. They are preparing for an unknown period of social distancing or isolation, with stricter lockdown measures potentially further down the line.

Most children won’t be able to eat school meals and workers can’t pop out to buy lunch from a cafe.

And, because people are being encouraged to go outside as little as possible, they will buy more in one go rather than across the week.

A few people hoarding hundreds of toilet rolls isn’t causing empty shelves. The problem lies with “just in time” methods of production and distribution under capitalism.

To save on storage costs, supermarkets only fill their shops with what they immediately expect to sell. Even a relatively small increase in demand means that they can’t get stock out from warehouses or factories to shelves quickly enough.

There are measures that the government could take if it wanted to guarantee supplies for NHS workers and other frontline staff.

It could, for instance, organise home deliveries through postal workers acting in an emergency role.

These would go much further than the plans outlined last weekend. 

But instead it has passed the buck on to ordinary people to distract from its own failings.

Zero hour contract workers face layoffs and uncertainty

Workers on zero hours and precarious contracts face even more uncertainty as bosses react to the outbreak by cutting hours.

Eleanor is a masters student in London who relied on a zero hours contract job in hospitality, but was told her work was cutting shifts.

With no income, she’s had to leave London to stay with her mum in Nottingham. Now she’s waiting in limbo to find out whether she’ll be made redundant, and whether her landlord will let her miss her rent.

“I assume I’m going to get involuntary redundancy as I’m on zero hours,” she told Socialist Worker.

“My main concern is I don’t have money for rent. My housemate is trying to sort out something with my landlord but we haven’t heard from him yet. If I was back in London my main concern would be food.

“I’m not the only one in this position. So many of my friends have lost their jobs.”

Eleanor added that as a student she didn’t know if there are any benefits she’s entitled to.

But more frustrating was the advice and moralism by rich people in the media who won’t lose out as society shuts down.

“We’re being told on Twitter and Instagram by millionaires and influencers to stay at home—but we don’t have a choice,” she said.

“My sister in law works at Virgin and is facing eight months leave. But Richard Branson owns a private island and isn’t offering up any of his own money.”

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