Exclusive: UK supermarkets may cut services to stay open as coronavirus spreads – sources

LONDON (Reuters) – Britain’s major supermarkets are working on plans to streamline their operations by cutting cafes, counters and other services to enable a depleted workforce to maintain basic provisions during the coronavirus outbreak, industry sources told Reuters.

The country’s supermarket sector, including market leader Tesco (TSCO.L), Sainsbury’s (SBRY.L), Asda (WMT.N) and Morrisons (MRW.L), has struggled for over a week to keep shelves stocked as shoppers panic buy items like dried pasta, canned food, flour, toilet rolls and hand sanitizer.

But executives are now working on plans to keep the stores running if large numbers of their staff become ill or if the outbreak forces the closure of schools, which would escalate workers’ child care needs.

“What (products) we can and can’t get is the least of our current challenges,” one UK supermarket executive told Reuters.

The person said far more pressing problems were how the business staffs its stores and how it practically helps the elderly and vulnerable when the virus takes hold of the UK population.

The government announcing the closure of all schools would be “a binary moment”, the person added.

Another source at a UK supermarket group said planning was focused on “What would it take to keep the store running?”

The source said this could involve having a much more streamlined operation in individual stores, keeping them running with less staff.

Options could include temporarily closing in-store cafes and fresh food counters.

The industry says it is working closely with government and suppliers to keep food moving through the system and is making more deliveries to stores to get shelves re-stocked. But it has also appealed to customers to be more considerate.

Health officials have said 35 people have died from coronavirus in Britain, while the total diagnosed was 1,372.

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