UK retailers hit by supply disruption amid coronavirus concerns

Almost a quarter of British retailers are reporting severe disruption to their supply of goods as a result of the spread of coronavirus.

News that retailers are starting to struggle to maintain supplies of some products comes as a survey found that one in 10 people have already started stockpiling food because of fear of an outbreak in the UK.

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A survey from the consultancy Retail Economics has found that 24% of British retailers – ranging from food and fashion to health and beauty – say that supply chain disruption is having a significant impact on their business. However, only 7% of those businesses surveyed said that they had enough flexibility in their supply chain to be able to switch suppliers.

The report also highlights the impact on British retailers and consumer behaviour if the coronavirus continues to spread.

The report found that almost half (45%) of the 30 retail companies questioned in the survey have already seen a negative impact on sales, while three-quarters of British retailers surveyed expect to see a sales decline if the virus persists.

What is the coronavirus and should we be worried?

It is caused by a member of the coronavirus family that has never been encountered before. Like other coronaviruses, it has come from animals. Many of those initially infected either worked or frequently shopped in the Huanan seafood wholesale market in the centre of the Chinese city.

Severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) and Middle Eastern respiratory syndrome (Mers) are both caused by coronaviruses that came from animals. In 2002, Sars spread virtually unchecked to 37 countries, causing global panic, infecting more than 8,000 people and killing more than 750. Mers appears to be less easily passed from human to human, but has greater lethality, killing 35% of about 2,500 people who have been infected.

The virus can cause pneumonia. Those who have fallen ill are reported to suffer coughs, fever and breathing difficulties. In severe cases there can be organ failure. As this is viral pneumonia, antibiotics are of no use. The antiviral drugs we have against flu will not work. Recovery depends on the strength of the immune system. Many of those who have died were already in poor health.

UK Chief Medical Officers are advising anyone who has travelled to the UK from mainland China, Thailand, Japan, Republic of Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia or Macau in the last 14 days and who is experiencing a cough or fever or shortness of breath to stay indoors and call NHS 111, even if symptoms are mild.

China’s national health commission has confirmed human-to-human transmission, and there have been such transmissions elsewhere.

As of 4 March, the global death toll is 3,190, while more than 93,000 people have been infected in more than 80 countries. In China there have been 2,981 deaths, and there are 80,270 cases in all. South Korea, the nation worst hit by the outbreak outside China, has had 5,328 cases. More than 44,000 people in China have recovered from Covid-19.

There have been 51 recorded cases and no fatalities to date in the UK. There have been 41 cases of the virus in Australia.

We don’t yet know how dangerous the new coronavirus is, and we won’t know until more data comes in. The mortality rate is around 2% at the centre of the outbreak, Hubei province, and less than that elsewhere. For comparison, seasonal flu typically has a mortality rate below 1% and is thought to cause about 400,000 deaths each year globally. Sars had a death rate of more than 10%.

Another key unknown is how contagious the coronavirus is. A crucial difference is that unlike flu, there is no vaccine for the new coronavirus, which means it is more difficult for vulnerable members of the population – elderly people or those with existing respiratory or immune problems – to protect themselves. Hand-washing and avoiding other people if you feel unwell are important. One sensible step is to get the flu vaccine, which will reduce the burden on health services if the outbreak turns into a wider epidemic.

A pandemic, in WHO terms, is “the worldwide spread of a disease”. Coronavirus cases have been confirmed outside China, but by no means in all 195 countries on the WHO’s list. It is also not spreading within those countries at the moment, except in a very few cases. By far the majority of cases are travellers who picked up the virus in China.

No. The spread of the virus outside China is worrying but not an unexpected development. The WHO has declared the outbreak to be a public health emergency of international concern. The key issues are how transmissible this new coronavirus is between people, and what proportion become severely ill and end up in hospital. Often viruses that spread easily tend to have a milder impact. Generally, the coronavirus appears to be hitting older people hardest, with few cases in children.

Sarah BoseleyHannah Devlin and Martin Belam

Beyond avoiding overseas travel, 15% of those involved in a separate UK household survey by Retail Economics said they are currently avoiding public transport. Almost a quarter (23%) are avoiding contact with other people, while 9% are shunning restaurants and entertainment destinations such as cinemas.

If the situation worsens, a third say they will consider avoiding public transport, with almost 30% stopping going to restaurants and cinemas and a quarter avoiding shopping destinations.

As a result, the report, conducted in conjunction with the law firm Squire Patton Boggs, says that online retail could benefit significantly. The report found that half (49%) of shoppers would consider buying more goods online to avoid physical shops if the virus persists.

However, half of the 2,000 consumers questioned in the survey also said they would try to avoid buying online from international sellers that ship products directly from China, the epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak and worst hit country.

The online supermarket Ocado has already advised customers to place orders further in advance than usual because of “exceptionally high demand”. It said: “More people than usual seem to be placing particularly large orders.”

Amazon has moved to remove “tens of thousands” of listings by “bad actors” who are attempting to cash in on coronavirus fears by raising prices of masks and sanitisers by as much as 2,000%.

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