March 18, 2020

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.

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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.