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5 May 2020

Which? calls for urgent government action to help vulnerable households access food

We want better coordination and clearer communication to help those that are clinically vulnerable to coronavirus access the food they need

Which? is calling on governments throughout the UK to take action to help shielding and vulnerable people struggling to access food.

More than six weeks into lockdown, we are still being contacted by a worrying number of people who are struggling to get hold of food and basic supplies.

While measures designed to help high-risk and vulnerable people have been introduced by governments and supermarkets, they aren't working for everyone and more needs to be done.

We asked our followers on Which? Conversation and our social channels to tell us whether they had struggled getting a delivery slot, and thousands responded to tell us their experiences.

We heard from:

  • Extremely vulnerable customers who are staying up into the early hours of the morning trying to get delivery slots
  • Those who are shielding, but have been forced to go to the supermarket by the lack of support
  • People with serious health conditions who are unable to get help from governments and supermarkets
  • Carers who can't leave the house due to looking after vulnerable people but haven't been able to get a home delivery slot
  • At-risk people who are being let down by the government and supermarkets due to confusing systems and technical difficulties.

We're calling for a more coordinated approach and, crucially, much simpler and clearer communication for people so they know how to get the food they needs.

Here, we share stories from just a handful of the hundreds of people who contacted us as they explain the toll the stress of sourcing food is taking on their lives and health.

Read the latest coronavirus news and advice from Which?.

High-risk people failed by government and supermarkets

More than two million people across the UK have been contacted by governments and health services, and advised to shield for 12 weeks. This is the group who are clinically extremely vulnerable due to specific medical conditions that are believed to place them at greater risk of severe illness from COVID-19.

  • You can find a full definition of those that are considered clinically extremely vulnerable on gov.uk.

Governments in England, Scotland and Wales have provided the supermarkets with lists of those who fall in this extremely vulnerable category and, in England and Scotland, who have also registered as needing support getting food. In Wales, all extremely vulnerable people's details have been shared.

These people should theoretically be offered priority delivery slots by supermarkets.

The supermarkets began by cross-referencing the lists received against existing registered customers and offering priority delivery slots to them. Some have also reached out to people on the list who aren't existing customers.

However, this approach doesn't mean that all high-risk people have been guaranteed slots.

Delivery slots are 'gold dust'

Many clinically extremely vulnerable people who have requested support told us they have spent hours searching for delivery slots or sitting on hold while trying to contact supermarkets.

John Girdlestone told us:

'I am registered on the government website as being highly vulnerable due to receiving chemotherapy and radiotherapy. I receive regular emails from the government, the NHS, my doctor's surgery, and local and county councils. The only contact I've had from the two supermarkets I hold cards for are emails telling me what they are doing for people in my situation, but I've heard nothing else.

'Under u201ccontact usu201d on their respective websites, it takes you round in circles if you're trying to email them, which is the best way for me as I have daily hospital appointments. I don't have the time to sit there on the phone hoping and praying someone will talk to me. So as far as I'm concerned, they're letting myself and probably many more down badly.'

Gillian Medlar and her husband are both on the high-risk list as she has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and he has lymphoma. They haven't been able to get a supermarket delivery slot and described them as 'gold dust'. They have been forced to rely on a neighbour, but want to limit how much they're asking of her.

'Had to use a taxi firm to collect'

The lack of delivery slots means that those who are at the highest risk of coronavirus complications are being forced to go to supermarkets in order to stock their cupboards.

Shielding for the clinically extremely vulnerable means not leaving the house. But one anxious person told us that they had been forced to take two click-and-collect slots after being unable to get a home delivery.

Not wanting to expose themselves to further risk by using public transport, they resorted to using a taxi to collect their shopping. This was despite emails from Morrisons and Sainsbury's saying they were on the government list that had been shared, and spending hours over four weeks trying to get a delivery slot.

They told us:

'One day I tried every hour on the hour to reach Asda, Iceland, Morrisons and Sainsbury's and Tesco. I had no success with any.

'The anxiety of not knowing if, or when, I will get shopping is possibly the worst anxiety of this experience. Knowing one had a regular weekly slot would be a huge help. We need more help.'

Thelma received a text from Sainsbury's on 2 April to let her know she was on its list of extremely vulnerable customers. She told us on 20 April that she hadn't been able to get a home delivery slot through Sainsbury's, and had been forced to use click and collect or to shop in store since then.

Thelma was successful in getting one delivery in four weeks through Morrisons, but only after six hours of 'patiently trying'. The next time she tried from 10pm until after 1am, without success.

She described the experience as 'soul destroying', adding, 'I think it will have to be the virus in the end for me.'

Stress and anxiety for high-risk families

Clinically extremely vulnerable people have been told to request extra help from the government if they don't have a way of getting help with shopping.

For those who don't live near their family, hearing from scared relatives who are still struggling for support is causing a huge amount of stress and, in some cases, anger.

Amanda Kontzle told us:

'My father is over the age of 70, is currently having stem cell cancer treatment and has even had a call from the government and letters to reassure him that he is on its radar as a high-risk, vulnerable individual.

'So why is it that despite registering recently on supermarket websites for home delivery, he can't even get a priority place in a queue, let alone an actual delivery slot?

'I'm absolutely disgusted at how he has been treated during this crisis so far.'

Carole's mother is in her 80s and has been told to shield.She's an existing Tesco customer, but despite registering for help using the UK government form and contacting Tesco directly, the only way Carole had managed to secure a slot for her mother was by staying up until 1am. She described the experience as 'extremely frustrating'.

Others have high-risk family members with conditions that require the whole household to shield.

Melvin told us that despite his son being at high-risk and registered on the government website, the supermarkets had not recognised them as needing priority slots. He suspected this was because the account was in his name, rather than his son's.

'I'm guessing this is the case as there is no one I can speak to to ask the question - all interaction is automated or online.'

Confusion over how to register for delivery slots

There are different systems in place in each of the UK nations for extremely vulnerable people wishing to register for support, and this has caused more confusion.

The BBC reported that an extremely vulnerable person in Northern Ireland had been told by a supermarket to register using the gov.uk form, which is only for those in England.

Others didn't realise that, in addition to being sent the government letter, they had to actively register their need for support in order to access priority delivery slots.

Jill Hassall told Which? that she hadn't registered as she thought that option was just for people who needed free food deliveries. She has now managed to get delivery slots through Morrisons, but only after emailing to explain the situation.

Elderly and vulnerable: 'We feel forgotten'

If you think about coronavirus vulnerability as being in a pyramid shape, below the shielding group at the top (those defined as 'clinically extremely vulnerable'), there is a second 'tier' of vulnerability.

This includes those aged over 70, pregnant women and people with certain underlying health conditions. You can find more information on who falls in the clinically vulnerable group at NHS.uk.

The government has advised this group, who are described as 'clinically vulnerable' (as opposed to 'clinically extremely vulnerable') to stay at home where possible.

While they can, under the current guidelines, go out for necessities such as food and exercise, many in this group don't feel physically able to - and others are scared of coming into contact with other people at supermarkets.

For some, venturing out was impractical or indeed impossible even before the coronavirus outbreak, and they feel they have now been forgotten by the government and the supermarkets.

  • Vulnerable people in need of help can call the NHS Volunteer Responders programme on 0808 196 3646.

Can supermarkets do more to help?

While great focus has been placed on the role of supermarkets in delivering food to vulnerable households, this is placing a huge strain on a segment of the market that until now only accounted for about 8% of UK grocery sales.

Andrew Opie, director of food and sustainability at the British Retail Consortium, told Which?: 'While most supermarkets are ramping up their online delivery operations, it would be impossible to deliver to all elderly and vulnerable groups in the UK.'

But while meeting demand fromthose that are vulnerable and self-isolating is undeniably difficult, according to evidence gathered by the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, the majority of people who have been classed as vulnerable rate the measures taken by supermarkets to help them access home delivery as poor.

And we've heard from many vulnerable people who feel as though they've been forgotten altogether.

No slots for non-shielding vulnerable groups

Paul Rouse, 75, has advanced heart failure, a permanent catheter and fluid on his lungs. Since the outbreak of coronavirus, his wife has become his full-time carer to remove the need for twice-daily visits from private carers. but he doesn't fall within the government's clinically extremely vulnerable criteria.

He told us that he had been unable to register for home deliveries at Sainsbury's, and while he had registered with Asda he was unable to get a slot. On 18 April, he managed to book a Morrisons delivery, but that wasn't due to take place until 6 May - nearly three weeks later.

Geoff Wilson, 86, described feeling like he and the 96-year-old woman 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.

Others have been trying to get help for friends and family who aren't on the clinically extremely vulnerable list.

Fiona Bridger-Wilkinson said:

'I've been unable to register my parents for Sainsbury's deliveries. They have received one Tesco delivery, but have been unable to book any further ones.

'They are both in their late 80s and my mum has dementia. It's really worrying as I don't live near them, so they are totally dependent on the kindness of neighbours. I have kept on trying to contact the major supermarkets, but I'm getting nowhere. I feel so helpless.'

Slots removed from those who rely on them

Before the coronavirus pandemic, some loyal online supermarket customers relied on home deliveries as a lifeline in getting food and basic essentials.

But with supermarkets diverting existing slots to those who are shielding, people who were vulnerable prior to the COVID-19 pandemic - including people with disabilities - have been left struggling to source food.

James Taylor, executive director of strategy, impact and social change at disability equality charity Scope, said: 'These findings echo exactly what Scope has been hearing from disabled people up and down the country.

'Despite efforts to address this problem, too many disabled people are falling through the gaps. Many have been forced to risk their health to visit supermarkets because they can't get the deliveries they need.'

Carers have also been affected. While the government has said that other members of the household can go out even if they are caring for someone who's been told to stay at home, this is often not possible.

On 17 April, a Which? member told us:

'I am the sole carer of my semi-invalid wife (77 years old). Because of her mobility problems, we have been doing our weekly food shopping online with home deliveries. I myself am 81.

'We have been living in near-isolation for the past three or so years. I now can't get any slots from Tesco for the weekly home delivery until at least 5 May - probably even longer, so I walk daily to the local convenience stores and get the necessities for a couple of days.

'I can't leave my wife alone for any length of time, so going to the local Tesco and queuing there is not really an option. Providing food for my wife and myself is a daily problem.'

Patricia Mogridge, 89, and her husband, 92, relied on a weekly delivery from Sainsbury's. They aren't on the clinically extremely vulnerable list and for the first four weeks of lockdown, she was only able to get one delivery from Tesco.

Patricia, who has had two heart attacks and five stents inserted, told us: 'I'm finding the stress and uncertainty is making me feel very unwell.'

And they are far from alone. One person told us they felt as if they had 'completely fallen off the radar for pretty much all of the supposed support measures'. Unable to get the delivery slots, they relied on due to being disabled and housebound, and described being 'trapped with no deliveries for three of the past four weeks'.

Problems contacting supermarkets

Jane Oliver is sole carer for her husband, who has Parkinson's disease and is unable to leave him on his own.

Their supermarket accounts are registered in her name and, as she is under the age of 60 and has no health issues, those shops initially offering slots to the vulnerable group didn't recognise their need for priority.

Jane said:

'I can't afford to contract the virus because I don't want to put him at risk of catching it from me and there would be no one to look after him if I fell ill. I have therefore isolated myself along with him.

'Contacting supermarkets to let them know that we are missed out is impossible because all contact is automated.'

UK nations slow to action

In England, the first list of high-risk people who had requested extra support was shared with supermarkets on 3 April. The Welsh Government followed suit five days later, but it took more than a week for the Scottish Government to do the same - despite supermarkets actively asking for the list.

In Northern Ireland, supermarkets still haven't received a list of extremely vulnerable consumers who need support.

A Department for Communities spokesperson told us: 'The online system being used in England can't be used here [in Northern Ireland], as we have different health service database arrangements.'

But for those living in Northern Ireland, the situation is frustrating.

Brian Luney said:

'We are told that it's too difficult to advise supermarkets the names of vulnerable customers, so it's very difficult, if not impossible, to book a shopping slot.'

Richard received a letter advising him to shield, but hasn't been able to find information on how to let supermarkets know he needs a delivery slot. Instead, he got up at 5am on 13 April, and managed to book a delivery slot for a week later.

Leave delivery slots for those who need them

If you're lucky enough not to be in the extremely clinically vulnerable or clinically vulnerable categories, and are able to shop in store, then you should do so.

While supermarkets do technically have the capacity to offer slots to everyone who is extremely clinically vulnerable, many are still missing out. This is partly down to people who don't need slots continuing to book them.

But even if everyone who could give up their slot did so, there still wouldn't be enough capacity to cater for the many millions more who fall into the second-tier 'clinically vulnerable' group.

To try and help make things as safe as possible for those who do have to venture out to the shops, supermarkets have implemented a range of social-distancing measures aimed at enabling everyone to maintain the recommended two metres apart from one another.

These include 'one in, one out' policies to avoid stores getting too crowded, as well as checkout screens, frequent deep cleaning and floor markings.

Which? calls for action: supermarkets and governments must urgently step up

We want to see a simpler process for high-risk people to register for the type of support they need, whether it's a free food box or prioritised supermarket deliveries.

The UK's four governments must step up efforts to ensure that nobody in the clinically extremely vulnerable group falls through the cracks.

Better coordination between governments, local authorities, the food industry and local charities is urgently needed to help those who are in the vulnerable group. This includes clearer communication about the support measures in place, whether by supermarkets or community support groups and greater consistency across the UK 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.'

If you're vulnerable and need help getting food delivered to your home, read our advice for coronavirus-vulnerable households.

How has the government responded?

In response to the Which? calls for action, a UK government spokeperson said: 'We are determined to ensure the most vulnerable are supported during this pandemic.

'Working closely with councils, the NHS and the food industry, we have delivered more than 900,000 parcels of food to clinically extremely vulnerable people through the shielding programme.

'For those who do not fall into the shielded group, there is other support available. Vulnerable people can refer themselves to the NHS Volunteer Responders programme by calling 0808 196 3646. Local councils may also be able to offer emergency support.