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Co-op boss: We'll deliver food to needy during Coronavirus outbreak – but shops may have to close


Decades in the grocery industry were not enough to prepare Steve Murrells for the past few weeks. ‘I’ve never seen its like,’ says the chief executive of the Co-operative Group, clearly in awe of the way his 60,000 staff and more than 2,500 grocery shops have dealt with the chaos of the past few weeks. ‘We’ve been very much at the epicentre of this.’ 

The organisation is working to keep shops open and ensure supplies arrive every day while also doing its best to protect staff. Murrells estimates stores can remain operational with an absence rate of up to 25 per cent. 

So far only ten shops have closed but another 60 are under review. ‘As lockdown really takes hold, there most definitely will be areas [where we have to close stores]. This could either be due to self-isolation of colleagues, or where customers just aren’t using a store. 

Action: Steve Murrells is liaising with retailers to keep Co-ops open. Inset left: Panic-buying from earlier this month

Action: Steve Murrells is liaising with retailers to keep Co-ops open. Inset left: Panic-buying from earlier this month

‘What’s critical is that we get replacement labour and help to keep other stores open and keep the country going through this.’ He is liaising with cafe and restaurant chains – such as Caffè Nero which have all been ordered to close – to draft 5,000 more staff on to the front line. That’s likely to rise to 7,000 by next week. 

The Co-op is using Deliveroo to deliver locally. But the company has also in the past few days begun a secret trial in one area of Wales taking orders via a hotline and using local Co-op volunteers and others to deliver food to vulnerable and elderly locals.

‘It will be the way to get products to the 1.5 million vulnerable people the Government has talked about,’ says Murrells, adding the project could soon be opened to new areas but ‘directed by where calls are coming in and depending on where the hotspots are.’ 

Bosses across the business world have been quick to step up in the crisis. Unilever last week unveiled a €500 million emergency package for its workers, suppliers and efforts to combat the virus internationally; Tesco has handed its beleaguered staff a ten per cent bonus; while dozens of other firms from drugs giant AstraZeneca to electric car maker Tesla have joined a growing corporate response to the outbreak. 

Others such as JD Wetherspoon’s boss Tim Martin and Sports Direct owner Mike Ashley have been publicly vilified for missteps. 

The Co-op – by no means the wealthiest organisation but one with a history of community involvement – is handing £1.5 million to food banks, £4.5 million to other local causes and charities over the next two weeks.

It’s also giving free vouchers to struggling families of children from Co-op academy schools and its bank of community workers are stepping up for the Government’s voluntary scheme to aid the vulnerable. 

Murrells says: ‘I see my fellow food retailers setting the right drum beat and doing the right thing – to look after colleagues before you look after profits. I think the public can see we’re leading and I think we will continue to set the right tone and I’m hoping that people will have a slightly changed view of us as an industry after this.’ Meanwhile, the group has to deal with extreme market volatility and demand so intense that shelves have been left empty. 

Last weekend, The Mail on Sunday revealed that supermarkets had been trading more than 50 per cent up on last year. Has demand come down significantly since then? 

Murrells, whose group also supplies Co-op products to about 5,000 convenience stores including Nisa and Costcutter, said: ‘Those are figures that I would recognise and, yes, I think it has. It most definitely seems to have slowed down these last few days.’ 

He says there’s ‘nothing to suggest’ the need for stricter rationing beyond the limits already imposed on some everyday items in supermarkets. ‘People are staying at home [after the Prime Minister’s announcement on Monday] and there has most definitely been a slowdown in the panic that we were seeing. It’s also worth reminding people we do have the best food sector in the world in this country. 

Long queues: With restaurants, cafes and catering chains closing, families are shopping for all their meals at grocery stores

Long queues: With restaurants, cafes and catering chains closing, families are shopping for all their meals at grocery stores

‘There is enough to go round. Everybody just has to stay calm and allow everybody proper access to food. But, that said, I would encourage people to fill up food banks as well as their own fridges. Community is everything right now. 

‘I have to also say a massive thank you to the thousands of Co-op colleagues doing an extraordinary job and we owe them a huge debt of gratitude for the work they continue to do. We couldn’t do this without them – and the country couldn’t get through this without them.’ 

Could stockpiling and volatile trading at grocery stores and supermarkets continue to be a feature despite a new sense of calmer food shopping in some parts of the country? ‘I don’t think there will be triggers of panic. But what we may find is that, as people get paid in the next few weeks, there are peaks on certain days of the week or month from people who might not have been able to get everything they needed, simply because they couldn’t afford it,’ says Murrells. 

He points out, however, that with restaurants, cafes and catering chains closing, families are shopping for all their meals at grocery stores – something that hasn’t happened in Britain for decades. 

‘Families are now moving into a phase of replacing those moments and it’s less about stockpiling given that they will have had a good go at that already.’ 

The group also runs more than 1,000 funeral care homes – about 225 of which have been forced to close – an insurance arm, legal services and an online prescription service. All are very much in demand. 

‘We think our repeat prescription business will continue to grow as pharmacies struggle to meet their needs or as local pharmacists themselves self-isolate, so we’ll be powering that up. And clearly we’ll be powering up in our funeral business,’ he adds. 

Dealing with grieving families, a potentially infectious disease and restrictions on public gatherings – there is currently a limit of ten family members allowed into funeral services – are all part of constant discussions with Government. But he says a deeper test of the nation’s psyche may also be ahead. 

‘There is no doubt if you look into what’s happening in countries that are ahead of us in this crisis, you see the Churchillian tempo start to move into anxiety. ‘People become more anxious about their own safety. We’re working around the clock to make sure we can support staff. 

‘To ensure colleagues have the right equipment – gloves, till screens around colleagues. People on the front line, on the tills, or carrying out a funeral service will become more anxious and will be looking for us to do the right thing as this goes on.’

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