Following the announcement of the latest Level 4 lockdown, the Police tweeted, “Go Home, Stay Home. You’re It”, in reference to a favourite childhood game for many of us. At the time, I thought it was clever and humorous social media, but I didn’t appreciate how well it prophesied the reality for supermarkets till later.

Being places most New Zealanders visit at least once in any given week, lockdown provisions cemented this in, so it’s certainly not a surprise supermarkets dominated the Government’s official “places of interest” register.

The orderly process of identifying close contacts to COVID cases has meant (at the time of writing) 365 places of interest and more than 32,000 close contacts. The flow-on effect of school closures has meant even more people have no choice but to “Go home, stay home”.

The New Zealand Food & Grocery Council has been making the point clearly in the six official COVID response groups we sit on (including our Chairman, Mike Pretty, doing legendary work on behalf of members) that we can’t run the risk of having too many people tapped out and at home, meaning our factories are not producing and our retail partners’ stores are closed. People need to be fed.

History makes it clear citizens will endure all sorts of things for a period of time, but the moment there’s a whiff of a food (or grocery) supply problem then things can go pear-shaped and panicky pretty quickly. At various times down through history, people have rioted over everything from potatoes to salt, and particularly bread. Lord Cameron of Dillington, head of the United Kingdom’s Countryside Agency, which was charged with reviewing their food security plan in 2008, said he thought they were “nine meals from anarchy”.

Some writers suggested this was melodramatic and potentially the title of a bad Hollywood film, but the genuine point is panic-buying and poor behaviour can and will occur when shoppers are anxious and believe they won’t be able to access their essential goods. This is why the recent suggestion by a COVID modelling expert that “selectively closing supermarkets” should be considered was received with a mix of surprise and horror from those who understand the role of a robust supply of food and essentials in keeping people calm.

Everyone in the supply chain in our industry – from farmers, manufacturers, and importers, through to distribution centre workers, truck drivers, merchandisers, and supermarket checkout operators – knows a seamless supply (as much as possible) of essentials is a key factor in keeping people calm.

In the latest outbreak, NZFGC members in the Auckland area reported early on the significant impact of losing staff in key distribution and manufacturing roles was slowing the fulfilment of orders. We can only imagine the complexity for the two supermarket chains trying to keep stores open and shelves filled at a time they are constantly having to send workers home because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time in their “place of interest”.

In this regard, the work being done by all readers of Supermarket News has been outstanding and I and all suppliers salute you.

The Ministry for Primary Industries is also working extremely hard at the behest of Food Safety Minister Ayesha Verrall to support manufacturers of food and essentials to stay safe to keep supplying critical supplies in the event of COVID-positive cases within the team. As I have mentioned regularly, excellent COVID protocols are the difference between being deemed a contact and (and safely) a casual +.

Supplier members I have spoken to have excellent protocols in place, including running separate shift bubbles, locking down facilities, maintaining strict separation and mask wearing at all times, CCTV footage, temperature checks, tracking vaccine statuses … the whole nine yards, and more.

If NZFGC members get a COVID-positive case and want assistance with the process, do not hesitate to contact us. We’re here to support you.

(originally published in Supermarket News)