Millions of vulnerable households in the UK need groceries delivered to their homes during the coronavirus lockdown – and the system is not always working.
Despite promises from supermarkets and the government that support is on its way to vulnerable households in need of grocery deliveries, thousands continue to report difficulties in getting food brought to their homes.
And, now that even more people have been added to the shielding list and told to stay home until at least the end of June, there is likely to be even more pressure on the system.
In this article, we explain how to get help if you or someone you know needs support in getting food delivered.
You can scroll down to read the full article or click the links to jump to a particular section:
- Northern Ireland
- What is each supermarket doing to help?
- School meal voucher scheme
- Are the measures to help vulnerable people working?
- Community groups and charities offering help
To find out what COVID-19 means for your rights, travel, health and lifestyle, check out the latest coronavirus news and advice from Which?.
Those in England that have been advised to shield should have received a letter from the NHS.
The government is asking everyone who is shielding to register at gov.uk, even if you don’t need any support. If you do need support, this is also the site through which you can request it.
If you’re shielding and need urgent support as soon as possible, contact your local authority.
And if you’re self-isolating, you can also get help through the NHS Volunteer Responders programme by calling 0808 196 3646 (8am-8pm).
For more information on accessing food and essential supplies, visit gov.uk.
Free food boxes
These are being organised by the UK government in partnership with the food industry, local government and local resilience forums.
The free boxes are being delivered weekly and are said to contain similar food items, including pasta and tinned goods, across the country.
So far, more than half a million food parcels have been delivered to shielding people in England, with thousands more to follow in the coming weeks.
How do I get a free food parcel in England?
If you haven’t already been contacted with advice and have a condition that makes you clinically vulnerable to coronavirus, register for help at gov.uk. You’ll need your NHS number to do so.
Accessing supermarket delivery slots in England
Around 2.1 million people in England have now been contacted and advised to shield until at least the end of June.
The government is sharing details of people who register as needing support with the supermarkets.
Supermarkets began by cross-referencing the list against existing registered customers and offering priority delivery slots to them. Some supermarkets (though reportedly not all) have also contacted people who weren’t existing customers to offer recurring delivery slots.
To be included on the database that is shared with supermarkets in England, you must register a need for support using the tool at gov.uk.
If you want an online delivery slot, you must answer ‘no’ to the question asking if you have a way of getting essential supplies delivered at the moment.
You need to answer all questions on the form for your details to be shared with supermarkets.
We’ve got more advice on supermarket deliveries below.
Clinically vulnerable patients in Northern Ireland should receive a letter from their GP.
Food parcels have begun to be delivered and the government estimates around 10,000 a week will be needed.
How do I get a free food parcel in Northern Ireland?
If you need free food parcels but haven’t been offered any yet, or are vulnerable and need other advice relating to coronavirus, you can contact the COVID-19 helpline for Northern Ireland by:
- Calling 0808 802 0020
- Emailing firstname.lastname@example.org
- Texting ACTION to 81025
Accessing supermarket delivery slots in Northern Ireland
Supermarkets in Northern Ireland have not been given the details of those in the shielded group.
A spokesperson for the Department for Communities told Which? that the online system being used in England can’t be used in Northern Ireland, due to the different health service databases.
They said: ‘We have made good progress with the big retailers in developing localised arrangements, which will be in place as soon as possible.’
Home deliveries are available from a range of local businesses, and each local council has a list of volunteers who can collect shopping for those who cannot leave their homes.
We’ve got more advice on supermarket deliveries below.
Clinically vulnerable people in Scotland should hear from NHS Scotland.
If you’re at risk from coronavirus and need urgent help with getting food, you can call 0800 111 4000 to be put in touch with your local authority.
How do I get a free food parcel in Scotland?
The Scottish Government is working with wholesalers Bidfood and Brakes to supply free food boxes to 6,000 shielded people.
At-risk Scottish residents will be identified via national datasets and through GP or hospital records. These people will receive a letter from NHS National Services Scotland and can request a free food box from the Scottish Government.
Those who have received a letter can do so by texting 07860 064525. This connects you to a text message service covering support for food, including free food boxes and medicines.
Those without a mobile phone are asked to access support via their local assistance centre.
More advice for shielding support can be found on Gov.scot.
Accessing supermarket delivery slots in Scotland
People in the shielded group should have been asked to give permission via the SMS service for their details to be shared with supermarkets.
Six supermarkets (Asda, Iceland, Morrisons, Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Waitrose) are offering priority supermarket deliveries for people in Scotland who are shielding.
The supermarkets say they have contacted existing customers who they believe are eligible for priority delivery slots.
Those that were not an existing customer of any supermarket should have received texts with details of how to register with a supermarket that serves their area.
We’ve got more advice on supermarket deliveries below.
In Wales, 91,000 extremely vulnerable people were originally sent a letter from the chief medical officer for NHS Wales advising them to shield, and 7,000 more were identified by their GPs.
A further 21,000 people have now been advised to shield, according to Lesley Griffiths, Minister for Environment, Energy and Rural Affairs.
If you need urgent help, the best point of contact is your local authority. There’s also a network of local volunteer groups on hand to help, and contact details for these can be found on ThirdSectorSupport.wales.
How do I get a free food parcel in Wales?
High-risk residents should be able to request a free weekly food box by contacting their local authority. If there are two eligible people within a household, two boxes will be delivered.
There is more advice on shielding for high-risk people at Gov.wales.
Accessing supermarket delivery slots in Wales
Supermarkets in Wales have been given a list of extremely vulnerable people who have been told to shield so they can contact them and offer deliveries. You do not need to register.
However, the Welsh Government has urged those who can shop for people who are shielding to continue to do so, as it’s ‘very unlikely’ that all of those on the list will be able to get a priority delivery slot.
What is each supermarket doing to help?
Supermarkets have been working hard to support vulnerable customers, including allocating dedicated in-store shopping hours for vulnerable and elderly shoppers and setting up helplines for those who can’t get online delivery slots.
But despite these measures, many elderly and vulnerable people have remained unable to book delivery slots. It has been a particular problem for those who aren’t in the extremely vulnerable group but are still self-isolating for other reasons such as age, as well as people who are unable to get to the shops due to disabilities.
All UK supermarkets will soon post a message on their websites asking vulnerable shoppers to input their postcode so they can be directed to one of 300 local food hubs. They will then be put in touch with a local volunteer who will shop for them.
- Find out more: safest ways to pay a volunteer for your shopping
Dedicated hours for vulnerable shoppers in store
If you’re elderly or vulnerable but are able to use shops, use the table below to find out when each supermarket is open for vulnerable shoppers and their carers.
If you’re unable to use the shops and are trying to get an online delivery, see the section below.
|Supermarket||Dedicated hours for vulnerable shoppers|
|Aldi||Can enter stores 30 minutes before opening time from Mon-Sat|
|Asda||No dedicated hours|
|Co-op||‘Prioritised’ Mon-Sat 8am-9am; Sun 10am-11am|
|Iceland||First hour of trading Mon-Sat|
|Lidl||No dedicated hours|
|Marks & Spencer||First hour of trading on Mon and Thu|
|Morrisons||No dedicated hours|
|Sainsbury’s||Mon, Wed, Fri 8am-9am|
|Tesco||Mon, Wed, Fri 9am-10am|
|Waitrose||First hour of opening|
- Find out more: how to shop safely in store during the coronavirus outbreak
What else are supermarkets doing to support vulnerable customers?
We’ve listed what each supermarket is doing to try and help below.
Aldi has launched a food parcel for home delivery containing a range of store cupboard items, such as tinned soups, pasta and rice, as well as tea, coffee and personal care items, including hand soap and toilet roll.
The contents are worth around £20 and there’s a £5 fee for picking, packing and delivery.
While anybody can order the box, Aldi has requested that shoppers leave them for vulnerable and elderly customers.
Asda says it has contacted everyone named on the government’s list to offer them free, recurring delivery slots.
It has introduced a shopping card for volunteers who are shopping for those who can’t leave the house. It can be topped up in a similar way to an e-gift card and sent to the volunteer, or left in a safe space for them to collect.
This means that vulnerable people don’t have to hand over cash to volunteers and there’s no need for an exchange of bank details.
It has also launched a £30 food box containing 31 items. The exact products will vary depending on availability but should include bread, tinned vegetables, rice, pasta, tea, coffee, longlife milk and toilet paper.
Booths is delivering emergency food packs to vulnerable customers living within three miles of its stores, which are located in the north of England. It has also launched a click-and-collect service for those wishing to avoid shopping in store.
Co-op has teamed up with Deliveroo to deliver basic essentials to households in self-isolation without a delivery fee. This is available from around 400 stores.
It’s also partnering with running club Parkrun to deliver groceries to vulnerable people that are self-isolating. A community shopping card can be bought via telephone on 0800 294 592, which can be used by the volunteers to pay for groceries.
Iceland said it’s regularly emailing customers who are on the list from the government and providing exclusive times for them to book a slot.
New customers can register at Iceland.co.uk.
Marks & Spencer is working with Deliveroo to deliver groceries from around 120 franchises in BP fuel stations. It also has a range of food boxes for home delivery, including store cupboard goods, vegetable and fruit boxes, and a £45 meat box.
Like Asda, it has introduced a contactless gift card that vulnerable people can buy for those helping with their shopping to use.
Morrisons has opened a helpline for vulnerable customers who are still struggling to get hold of items. Orders can be placed by calling 0345 611 6111.
It has also teamed up with Deliveroo to deliver a selection of essentials via the delivery app in some areas.
Morrisons has allocated a ‘Community Champion’ in each of its stores who will be tasked with identifying people in the community who may still need support. Morrisons will post information through the doors of those identified.
Ocado says it’s identifying vulnerable customers and giving them priority access to Ocado.com and delivery slots.
Sainsbury’s is contacting those in England, Scotland and Wales who have been identified as extremely vulnerable and, for England, registered as needing help via gov.uk.
While it was originally focusing on existing customers, Sainsbury’s says it’s now contacting other people who have been identified as extremely vulnerable and you can register at Sainsburys.co.uk.
In Northern Ireland, Sainsbury’s is working to get the details of the most vulnerable people and will contact them once it has these.
Sainsbury’s had previously asked vulnerable customers to register on its automated phone system, but a recorded message now states that it’s prioritising those on the extremely vulnerable list provided by the government.
Tesco says it has matched details from the government list of vulnerable people in England with 75,000 existing customers and contacted them to offer deliveries.
If you’re an existing Tesco customer and can’t shop safely in-store, you can call 0800 917 7359 to request a priority delivery slot.
Waitrose is offering elderly and vulnerable customers priority access to delivery slots, and has contacted those who have previously identified themselves as elderly or vulnerable when using Waitrose online orders or through the My Waitrose loyalty scheme.
It has asked that customers wait for further information, rather than contacting customer services directly.
Waitrose has also launched a volunteer payment card, which can be loaded with credit and then used to pay for a vulnerable person’s shopping.
Customers in London and Hove could also try the new Rapid Delivery Service, which allows you to order up to 25 items for delivery within two hours. Waitrose says 40% of slots will be reserved for elderly and vulnerable people.
- Find out more: safest ways to pay people helping with your shopping
School meal voucher scheme
In March, schools were forced to shut to all children apart from those of key workers, vulnerable children and those with specific special needs.
School closures left many families concerned about how to feed children who usually receive free school meals.
Around 1.3 million children in England are currently entitled to free school meals. For some, schools will continue to provide meals for collection or delivery.
Where this isn’t possible, families will be issued with an electronic voucher or gift card for £15 for each child per week to spend at supermarkets.
The Welsh government plans to roll out a similar voucher scheme, but schools and local authorities are providing meals for now.
In Scotland, children eligible for school meals will continue to receive these through local authority schemes.
Families in Northern Ireland will receive a direct payment of £27 for each child per fortnight, and have been asked to ensure that their bank details are correct on the Education Authority website.
Are the measures to help vulnerable people working?
We asked people on Which? Conversation and our social channels about their experiences of securing food deliveries.
Over a thousand people contacted us to tell us about the problems they’re continuing to face, over six weeks into lockdown.
That’s why Which? is calling for urgent action from UK governments and supermarkets to ensure that nobody in the clinically extremely vulnerable group falls through the cracks.
Governments, local authorities, the food industry and local charities need to coordinate more effectively and communicate more clearly so that all vulnerable people, no matter their location, can get food and essential supplies.
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.’
Community groups and charities offer help for vulnerable people
In many areas, mutual aid groups have been set up by local residents via Facebook, providing much-needed help to vulnerable local people or those having to isolate. Search for your local mutual aid group if you’d like to get involved or if you need help.
Residents within these groups may help people by picking up groceries or prescriptions, or offer a telephone call for those who are struggling with isolation.
If someone volunteers to do your shopping with you, make sure you pay them in a secure way – you can find out more in our advice story on ways to pay volunteer shoppers.
While social distancing measures are important to delay the spread of the virus, they will leave many people feeling lonely. We’ve rounded up loneliness prevention tips for older people during lockdown, including key numbers to call if you need support.
It’s not just neighbours who are offering support, either, with local shops and restaurants offering a lifeline for some by supplying boxes of essentials or delivering hot meals that can be ordered over the phone.
We’ve heard about Royal Mail delivery people putting notes through letterboxes offering help, and neighbours sharing online supermarket orders to ensure that everybody in the street gets the supplies they need.
- Find out more: celebrating the unsung coronavirus heroes
This story was originally published on 7 April and has been updated regularly since then to reflect the current situation. Additional reporting by Ellie Simmonds.