Supermarkets are poised to implement rationing within 24 hours of a run on essential goods being detected, amid growing fears panic buying will erupt if the UK confirms a no-deal Brexit, The Telegraph has learnt.
One major chain is preparing to intervene at high speed to implement a three-item limit on specific products, and could even impose a one-item limit on certain baby goods, in order to ensure all customers have access to essentials, according to a senior industry source.
Moves to start rationing are expected to be expedited this winter after many stores took a week or more to levy item limits when coronavirus sparked a spate of customer stockpiling in the spring.
That delay is now viewed as having further fuelled the panic buying episode, as the sight of shoppers loading up trolleys with multiples of the same item – such as pasta and loo roll – and photos of empty shelves on social media, encouraged others to follow suit in amassing stockpiles.
The senior industry source told The Telegraph that store bosses were concerned about a no-deal Brexit, saying: "One supermarket is predicting 'stockpiling Armageddon' – they think this is going to be much worse than coronavirus. That's their view from talking to customers and their gut feeling. They’re definitely worried about it."
The announcement of a new wave of tighter Covid restrictions this week are deemed unlikely to trigger stockpiling by customers. "People now have faith in Covid that if they turn up next week there will be loo roll there and eggs. No deal is new, no deal is their worry," said the source.
Justin King, former chief executive of Sainsbury's, also predicted on Monday that if UK-EU trade talks collapse without a deal, supermarkets "will probably have to bring in 'fair purchase policies' again to make sure everybody gets what they need".
He suggested such measures could be necessary to counteract the "small number of people" who may try to stockpile goods to retrade them.
The British Retail Consortium (BRC) said not all supermarkets were preparing for rationing ahead of the end of the Brexit transition period on December 31, however.
"We do not believe many retailers are currently considering buying limits – their focus will be increasing deliveries and ensuring more people are available to restock shelves throughout the day," said a spokesman for the trade association.
On Sunday, Helen Dickinson, chief executive of the BRC, urged Britons against stockpiling items at home in the event of a no-deal outcome to Brexit trade talks.
“There is no need for the public to buy more food than usual as the main impact will be on imported fresh produce, such as fresh fruit and vegetables, which cannot be stored for long periods by either retailers or consumers,” she said.
The BRC has warned that if the Government fails to secure a trade deal with the EU, the public will face food price hikes next year.
Tariffs worth £3 billion would be levied on food items, which retailers are expected to pass on to consumers, according to the trade association’s analysis.