Do we need a National Food Service?

By Kieran Neild- Ali, grassroots assistant at the TaxPayers’ Alliance

Coronavirus has had a huge impact on our daily lives. Shopping has been especially affected. Supermarkets are enforcing social distancing laws to protect their customers from the virus and ensuring essential items cannot be bought in bulk. For most of us, the long queues are little more than an inconvenience. For the most vulnerable in Britain, it is a potentially dangerous situation. 

Those who are self-isolating due to serious health conditions or disabilities are struggling to get out of the house to shop for essentials. There is a consensus that those most at risk must be helped and the government has begun to send free food parcels to vulnerable people in self-isolation. This action is part of the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government’s social shielding strategy which will see almost one million people entitled to free packages of food and medication. Labour have also proposed a National Food Service (NFS) to deliver free food parcels to those most in need.

The government’s emergency strategy to deal with the coronavirus crisis is unprecedented, but understandable and justifiable, as we said in our full statement. However, some supporters of the NFS seem to imply that they want to see government distributed food supplied to people who are not self-isolating or in desperate need. This would in effect be a nationalised food delivery service providing ‘comprehensive’ coverage, not emergency assistance to the most needy. 

Shadow education secretary Rebecca Long-Bailey has suggested that part of the reasoning behind the NFS is based on the misconception that supermarket shelves are empty and supplies depleted. In reality, supply chains are functioning well and are continuing to meet the increased demand. Supermarkets have stepped up to the plate to ensure the wellbeing and safety of their customers and staff. Most stores have allocated certain hours of the day to give priority to the elderly and essential workers. Supermarkets have voluntarily limited essential items to ensure there is enough for everyone.

The reaction of supermarkets has been a testament to the success of free markets and consumer sovereignty. Without market forces, shops would not have innovated so quickly to ensure they retained the trust of the public. Competition has ensured that prices have not skyrocketed and that liberal restrictions on quantities have not starved customers, nor required enforced rationing. As such, plenty of food is on the shelves, and consumers no longer feel the need to “panic buy"

These measures have been implemented without the interference of the state. It is the reactive instinct of any business to adapt to the times and ensure a first class service for their customers. The government could assist supermarkets further by suspending Sunday trading laws to reduce long queues. This would increase the hours people could shop and spread the demand for food over a longer period. 

A National Food Service would not be the same as the kind of ‘emergency measures’ pursued by the government. Emergencies such as this are exactly why we fight for what we do in normal times - so that we can pull together as a nation to see off a crisis. We have allowed supermarkets to compete and prosper in a free market, and we are now reaping the rewards. A heavy handed centralised approach to the supply of food  would undoubtedly have been a disaster. It would place an incredible burden on existing infrastructure, rely on an ad hoc bureaucracy to allocate and coordinate food parcels. Consumers would not receive the vast range and choice of goods currently on offer in supermarkets. 

This episode has been the proof of the pudding that economic freedom, not state control, is good for us all. 

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