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How coronavirus exposes our fragility We Britons have traded an old-fashioned feeling of security for a convenience lifestyle

Shoppers form long queues ahead of the opening of a Costco store in Chingford (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

Shoppers form long queues ahead of the opening of a Costco store in Chingford (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

March 18, 2020   4 mins

If, as Neil Gaiman said, any civilisation is two meals and 24 hours away from barbarism, ask yourself this: what am I having for dinner tonight?

That might be an easy one for you to answer. But what about dinner four days from now, or six? The fact that many people would find that second question hard or even impossible might just tell us something about the way Britain will be changed by Covid-19.

When I started reporting on politics almost 20 years ago, Tesco and the people who shopped there every Saturday were pretty much the centre of the electoral universe. Tony Blair was almost supernaturally attuned to Tesco shoppers, their concerns about petrol prices and the rest. Tesco, driven by its big-box edge-of-town stores (which also sold petrol), was the company of the moment; even political journalists knew that one pound in every seven spent on British retail went to Tesco.

Then the financial crisis and competition in the market changed British grocers and the way we shop. People suddenly short of cash, or just worried about cash, become reluctant or unable to spend a big slice of their weekly disposable on one big shop on one day. Lidl and Aldi arrived, mostly in the centre of towns in small- and medium-sized stores, not in big boxes. Incumbent supermarkets, too, chased shoppers who wanted to shop more often, to spend smaller sums more frequently.

Tesco tried to keep pace with consumers, with Tesco Metro, a shift that meant many things, including a reduction in staff numbers.

Essentially, Britain became a nation of just-in-time shoppers, making regular and even daily trips to the shops for that night’s dinner. A few years back, the Co-op found that 27% of us chose our evening meal on the day; only 9% of people in its survey planned their meals a week ahead.

Waitrose has also noted the death of the weekly shop​, observing that a staple of the high street is shrinking and maybe even disappearing:

“Just a few years ago, an average Waitrose would open with around 200 big trolleys and 150 shallow ‘daily shopper’ trolleys lined up outside. These days the tables have turned, with 250 shallow ‘daily shoppers’ and just 70 big trolleys needed.”

More recently, the aversion to the weekly shop and to preparing to feed ourselves has sparked a new trend in food retail: recipe boxes, where someone else plans and weighs and measures the components you need to prepare your evening meal — Hello Fresh, Gousto, Mindful Chef.

Not only do we no longer want to fill our cupboards with food, we can’t be bothered to measure and weigh the stuff either.

This shift surely informs Britain’s response to the coronavirus emergency, and will shape the way that emergency changes us. When the crisis really hit, how many people didn’t have enough food in the fridge or cans in the cupboard to last out the 14-day isolation period Boris Johnson asked of any household with a symptomatic resident?

To anyone — and yes, the younger you are, the more likely this is to be true — who relies on that daily trip to the shop, perhaps on the way home from work, the idea of spending two weeks cut off and relying on the kindness of friends is almost inevitably daunting, even frightening.

Some might shrug and assume that online-ordered supermarket fare will arrive from a truck as ever. But the reality of two-week-long waits for a delivery slot will come as another reminder of the simple and, at times like this, terrifying fragility of modern lives predicated on just-in-time and on-demand services.

This isn’t (just) about brittle urban millennials who won’t cope if Amazon Prime can’t get them their plant-based dinner in the next three hours. In the past week, I’ve heard two friends, middle-aged London professionals, announce that they’re buying cars for the first time. Having relied on shops walking distance away and public transport, both have abruptly decided they need the ability to drive themselves and their families to, well, anywhere else if they needed to. Maybe all that stuff that Marie Kondo persuaded us to get rid of had uses — psychological and practical — after all.

The coronovirus has reminded such people of that fragility, the feeling of security that some of us have traded away for a convenience lifestyle. How else to explain panic-buying toilet paper and dry pasta? Narrowly speaking, such actions can be rational, but a better question to ask is more fundamental: why are they necessary?

Relying on just-in-time delivery along global supply-chains to feed and clothe and support us by buying little and often is a little bit like flying. It’s a huge source of freedom and progress, but also a risk to which we deliberately blind ourselves. For many people, the only way to be comfortable with sitting in a metal box full of highly-flammable fuel 30,000 feet above the earth is not to think about the incredible number of things that have to go exactly right to make it possible — and so about the things that could go wrong.

This, of course, is speculation, but I think the psychological impact of our empty cupboards at a time of national trauma could just be a counterweight to the widely-observed idea that the virus will renew faith in the state. I think we may well emerge from this horror with a newfound tendency towards household resilience, to the minor but important feeling of self-sufficiency, of security, that comes with a cupboard full of food. Do not be surprised if the coronavirus eventually brings the shopping trolley trundling back into the heart of our national life.

Meanwhile, when (if) we ever get back to talking seriously about Britain’s post-EU political economy, I wonder if British farmers will find it just a little bit easier to see off the “Singapore” Brexiteers who wonder if we couldn’t do without them and just import more of what we eat. Of course we could, but could we ever feel comfortable doing so? I’d bet on shorter, stronger supply chains coming into fashion on the other side of the emergency.

And for Ms Kondo, perhaps a well-stocked house does not always spark joy but it does come in handy at times like these. Just as there are no atheists in a foxhole, there are no minimalists in a time of plague.

James Kirkup is Director of the London-based Social Market Foundation


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David Field
David Field
4 years ago

There are many more reasons than choice that so many live on the precipice of virus-induced disaster. For those that did make that choice, either out of laziness or instagrammable-lifestyle stupidity, I think we will see some change. But for everyone else there may be issues.

The article touches on one of them, which is that spending cash on a big shop all at once is something people are often still uncomfortable with, for good reason. Huge numbers continue to have precarious finances that make stocking up either risky under normal circumstances, or outright impossible.

Poor financial security also applies to the option of simply buying a car to increase the range at which one can go scavanging. If a car is not already necessary, buying one probably isn’t an option for large numbers of people. This is in any case ignoring the fact that encouraging car use is the exact opposite of what we ought to be doing in the long-term, for the sake of urban livability, pollution and environment.

Another significant barrier for people, certainly of my own generation (and perhaps others as well), is one of space. It wasn’t that long ago I found myself paying £400 a month for a small room, sharing a kitchen where I had a small cupboard and half a shelf in the fridge for myself. It was difficult to have stock for even a week’s worth of meals, let alone for two or more just in case, not because I lacked the funds but because I had no means to store it.

The demand for homes has only pushed the space issue to greater extremes. People are cramming themselves into ever-smaller spaces with ever-greater numbers of others, often strangers, and therefore essentially forcing themselves to live in a just-in-time fashion, because there is no other option available*.

The problem of lack of self-sufficiently is only partly self-induced. For a great many people, their environment is at the very least pushing them into the behaviours causing these problems, if not forcing them.

This is, to my mind, behind the “widely-observed idea that the virus will renew faith in the state.” Huge numbers of my peers, far from looking to plan for their own future security, are ever more fervent in their belief that security is only available to them by the grace of the state. At this point, I’m even seeing people start to praise rationing as a good example of the state benevolently creating “equity” in a selfish capitalist society.

Once this crisis is done with, the present government is going to have to do a lot to ensure that people feel they can be responsible for their own lives.

* As an aside, this is also where the trend for minimalism and “konmari” comes from. A lack of space creates a requirement for using it wisely. I think then that the article here somewhat misses the point in throwing some punches toward Ms Kondo, who I doubt would ever advise someone to throw out essentials because it “isn’t minimal.”

Carolyn Jackson
Carolyn Jackson
4 years ago

Marie Kondo urged people to get rid of useless junk, not food. How do you know there are no atheists in foxholes?

4 years ago

As an aside to the article, we are now eating more fresh food and are more heath conscious than ever, this dictates more visits to the supermarkets to purchase these products that have short sell by dates. Our cupboards are no longer full of tinned goods as they were in the 70’s and 80’s.