Confusion over coronavirus catering contingency plans

Ministers have had frequent meetings with supermarket bosses to discuss their response to any food supply threats posed by coronavirus. So why haven’t the public sector catering chiefs been called in too? By David Burrows.

George Eustice has made no secret of the effort he is putting in to ensure there is enough food on supermarket shelves as the COVID-19 coronavirus spreads. Press releases are issued every time the Defra secretary meets or calls the chief executives at the “UK’s leading supermarkets”. Retailers, in return, have reassured him that there are “well-established contingency plans” in place. Matt Hancock, the health secretary, has also reportedly been in touch with the supermarkets and is “confident” food supplies would not run out.

But has either cabinet minister met with catering companies, or even called them, to discuss their plans in relation to coronavirus? After all, it’s them, not the supermarkets, who are the ones supplying hospitals with food. And they could also cover food supplies to schools and universities (including what plans are in place should there be closures: will food pile up and go to waste?) as well as prisons.

So Footprint asked Defra if Eustice had met with the bosses of Compass, Sodexo and the like? “I’m afraid this isn’t something our secretary of state would do,” came the reply. “It is more likely the case that the education secretary would meet firms about supply to schools, the justice secretary about prisons, the health secretary for hospitals etc. I’m afraid it would be a case of contacting each department to ascertain whether meetings had happened across specific sectors.”

So we did. The Department for Education is yet to respond but a Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) press officer emailed with the following: “I have liaised with the team and Defra would actually be best placed to respond, I would suggest contacting their press office.”

Wait a minute: DHSC thinks Defra is leading on food supplies to hospitals, but Defra says it is DHSC’s responsibility. This is far from reassuring. And the confusion didn’t end there.

We went back to Defra with DHSC’s response. A reply was fired back (unusually) quickly. “I think DH may have got confused as we deal with overall food security for the nation. We deal with national supply chains and ensuring the retailers have food on shop shelves. Food supplies to specific institutions such as hospitals is owned by the relevant department.”

The press officer even pointed us in the direction of a parliamentary question (one which we should “feel free to share with DH”) that proves the point. The question, from July 2019, asked Theresa Villiers, Defra secretary at the time, “what plans she has to ensure that public services that (a) care homes, (b) schools, (c) hospitals and (d) prisons will have adequate supplies of food in the event that the UK leaves the EU without a deal” (remember, this was a time when Brexit was our only concern).

The response, from Zac Goldsmith, one of the ministerial team, noted the “extensive work” being undertaken to prepare for a smooth exit whatever the scenario. On public sector catering supplies, he said: “Public sector food provision for specific sectors including hospitals, prisons, schools and care settings is led by the relevant government departments. However, Defra has been working closely with lead departments (DfE, DHSC, MOJ, MOD) to support their contingency planning for food supply to public services. Defra is providing advice and support to these departments especially to support their engagement with the food industry.” Goldsmith added that “lead government departments are engaging with key suppliers for schools, hospitals and prisons to ensure the supply chain is prepared and supply is maintained”.

So, it’s DfE and DHSC that should be covering the contingency planning for food supplied to schools and universities and schools and care homes respectively. But that was Brexit and this is coronavirus, so is this still the case? DHSC seems to think Defra is the department that should be on top of all this. If it isn’t, as Defra’s press office suggests, who is taking responsibility? We just don’t know. It remains unclear exactly who is talking to who (or that anyone is talking to anyone in relation to food supplies to the public sector). Also, the combative tone of Defra’s emails do not instil confidence that the communication channels between departments and ministers are open.

“We have a highly-resilient food supply chain, and Defra meets regularly with the food industry to ensure that it is well prepared to deal with a range of scenarios,” said Defra in a follow-up email.

But as far as the government is concerned, the ‘food industry’ seems to extend little beyond those “leading supermarkets” and, sometimes, as far as the Food and Drink Federation. Who is representing public sector caterers, or indeed the wider foodservice and hospitality sector?

We’ve been told there has been regular engagement between Defra and UKHospitality, but can they really represent the whole of the contract catering sector? Surely the insight of a Robin Mills (MD at Compass Group UK & Ireland) or Stuart Winters, CEO healthcare Sodexo UK & Ireland wouldn’t go amiss? What are their plans and what potential problems do they foresee?

LACA hasn’t yet replied to our requests for information. The Hospital Caterers Association (HCA) told us that it is monitoring the situation but “by and large it remains business as usual”. There are NHS task forces in each of the UK’s four nations and HCA members are feeding into this. However, there have been “no ministerial requests”.

Craig Smith, the organisation’s national chair, insisted the sector is well-prepared. “From our perspective, as a result of the extensive prep that was made ahead of Brexit, public sector caterers are arguably better prepared to adjust to what happens in the market. Should there be a need to change our current response to the coronavirus, we and our members will be ready to implement it."

But this isn’t Brexit. Reports from Italy this week suggest that a shortage of medical supplies and beds is forcing doctors to choose which patients to save. If the virus spreads rapidly here there could be a huge uplift in demand for food at hospitals as well as dramatically reduced requirements at schools if they are shut. Perhaps caterers are prepared but surely ministers need to ask them?

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