Vulnerable people risk going hungry without urgent government action, warns Which?

After receiving calls from 1,000 vulnerable people struggling to access food during Covid-19, the consumers' association Which? demands government action.

Photo credit: Sustain

Photo credit: Sustain

Which? is calling for urgent action from the UK government and the devolved administrations after hearing reports from more than a thousand people, including those who are at very high-risk or vulnerable and unable to access the food and basic supplies they desperately need amid the coronavirus pandemic.

While measures have been introduced by governments and supermarkets that are designed to help high-risk and vulnerable people, more than six weeks into lockdown the consumer champion continues to hear from people who are struggling to book supermarket delivery slots, are unable to find the help they need locally and in some cases find themselves forced to risk their health to get supplies.

Millions of individuals have been identified by the governments around the UK as extremely vulnerable and in the very high-risk group, but Which? is hearing that some are missing out on the provision they need through no fault of their own.

Others who are vulnerable, or have been asked to ‘self-isolate’ because they are elderly, pregnant or suffer from medical conditions that could cause severe illness if they were to contract Covid-19, are even more likely to have fallen through the cracks.

Which? found a range of issues among the huge number of reports received. As well as very high-risk people who are shielding and struggling to get deliveries or being forced to visit stores despite being advised to stay at home, others have been unable to navigate complex, confusing and often overwhelmed government and supermarket helplines or other support systems.

Some of these vulnerable customers told Which? that they are having to stay up into the early hours of the morning in an attempt to book supermarket delivery slots, while others are left relying on the kindness of neighbours.

Gillian Medlar and her husband are both on the very high-risk or extremely vulnerable list as she has Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and he has lymphoma. They haven’t been able to get a supermarket delivery slot, and described them as “gold dust”. They’ve been forced to rely on a neighbour, but want to limit how much they are asking of her.

The problem also affects carers, who cannot leave the house but are not in the high-risk category themselves so also have to rely on getting delivery slots.

Melvin, whose son is in the highest risk category, has received letters advising him to shield for three months. The whole household is shielding but they have not been recognised as extremely vulnerable by the supermarkets’ websites as the online accounts are in Melvin’s name and not his son’s.

Carers of vulnerable people can go out for groceries but this may not always be possible if they also need to self-isolate themselves.

Geoff Wilson, 86, described feeling like he and the 96-year-old lady he is a full time carer for were “the forgotten ones”. They aren’t eligible to register as extremely vulnerable, and have been unable to get a home delivery from anywhere.

Supermarkets say they have been overwhelmed by demand. While many have gone to great lengths to increase their capacity, without a more coordinated effort from government and better access to other forms of provision in local areas, deliveries will continue to fall short of what’s needed to make sure that every vulnerable person is able to access food and basic supplies without leaving their home.

We have also heard from people who are vulnerable and need help, regardless of their Covid-19 risk. One disabled and housebound individual told Which? she felt she had “completely fallen off the radar for pretty much all of the supposed support measures. Unable to get the delivery slots she relied on, she described being ‘trapped with no deliveries for three of the past four weeks”.

Governments in England, Scotland and Wales have provided the supermarkets with edited lists of those that fall in the extremely vulnerable category and have requested support with getting food. Part of this support is the offer of priority delivery slots by supermarkets.

Supermarkets began by cross-referencing the lists received against existing registered customers and offering priority delivery slots to them. Some supermarkets have also helped people on the government list who aren’t existing customers .

However, Which? has also heard from extremely vulnerable people who despite receiving a letter from the government letting them know that they qualify for priority supermarket delivery slots, have then been left in the dark for weeks on end about what they need to do.

There have been issues identifying the most vulnerable people and in some cases they have to identify themselves but there has been a lack of clarity and no central point of contact in order to find the best solution for each individual or area - which may not always be supermarket delivery but instead community based solutions from either smaller independent shops or volunteers.

Amanda Kontzle told Which? that her father is over 70 and having stem cell cancer treatment. He has been contacted by the government to reassure him that he is on the list of very high-risk people, but has been unable to get a delivery slot with any supermarket despite registering as a customer. Amanda said: “I’m absolutely disgusted at how he has been treated during this crisis so far.”

Which? believes that the UK’s four governments must step up efforts to ensure that no one who is vulnerable has fallen through the cracks and is struggling to access basic supplies.

Better coordination between governments, local authorities, the food industry and local charities is also urgently needed for those who are vulnerable but not in the highest risk group, so that they understand how to easily access the support they need, whether that is through their local supermarket or community based provision.

Many of the people who have contacted Which? say they feel have been let down by the supermarkets because they are unable to get delivery slots - but there are limits to supermarkets’ ability to address some of the issues experienced by vulnerable consumers without additional government support.

The governments across the UK must now urgently coordinate their approach to make sure that no vulnerable person has to navigate confusing, long-winded and complicated systems in order to access food during the pandemic lockdown.

Sue Davies, Head of Consumer Protection and Food Policy at Which?, said:

“Based on the huge number of reports we’re seeing from vulnerable people struggling to get access to basic food and supplies, it’s clear that the current system is not working for those who need it the most.

“Without easily accessible and clearer information for these people, and stronger coordination between the UK’s central and devolved governments, the food industry, local authorities and local charities, there is a risk that many will go hungry during this pandemic.”

Notes to editors

Which? is calling for:

To support people in the highest risk or shielded group

  • National governments that are yet to provide supermarkets with lists of individuals in this group should urgently do so
  • It should be simpler for people in this group to register for support to get the type of food supplies they need (eg government parcels or prioritised deliveries)
  • The UK’s four governments must step up efforts to ensure that no one who is in this group has fallen through the cracks and is struggling to access basic supplies

To support the millions of consumers who are vulnerable, but not in the highest risk group, there needs to be:

  • Better coordination between central government and local authorities, the food industry and local charities so that all options for providing food deliveries - from supermarkets to local shops and volunteers - are fully exploited
  • Clearer communication from governments and supermarkets so that people are no longer left in the dark about how to access the support they need to get their food deliveries
  • Greater consistency across the UK with regards to how people get the help they need to access basic supplies, so that all vulnerable consumers, regardless of location, can be confident they will get the support they need

Of non-vulnerable people who currently have supermarket delivery slots booked:

  • People who are able to go to the shops should think carefully about whether they need their delivery slots, while supermarkets should do all they can to assure people that if they give up their slot it will go to a vulnerable customer who needs it

Evidence

Which? has gathered over 1,000 reports of people who have struggled to access food and supplies amid the coronavirus outbreak. It has shared its evidence of vulnerable people struggling to access food during the coronavirus pandemic with the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (EFRA) Select Committee.

Which? is a member of the Sustain alliance. It is a non-profit organisation working to make life simpler, fairer and safer for consumers. During the coronavirus crisis, Which? is making a range of news, advice and guides available for free for anyone who needs it at https://www.which.co.uk/news/coronavirus/


05/05/2020
Coronavirus Food Alert

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