/ Shopping

Government must help the vulnerable access food

We’re calling on the four UK governments to step up their efforts to support vulnerable households access food. Here’s why we want to see changes made.

We’re now putting pressure on the four UK governments to do more to help those vulnerable to COVID-19 access the food they need.

This wouldn’t have been possible without your help.

When I asked people to tell me about their experiences of getting groceries since lockdown, I already knew that there were issues for some. What I hadn’t expected was the scale of the response. 

I was quickly inundated with hundreds of comments on Which? Conversation and social media from anxious people who were unable to get the food supplies they desperately needed, and didn’t know where to turn for help. 

Read all the latest COVID-19 news and advice on our dedicated hub

Many had been forced to visit the supermarket despite being shielded or self-isolating, while others were desperately concerned about how to access delivery slots. Anxious children were trying to source help for their vulnerable parents, often from hundreds of miles away.

Reading real-life stories from people who couldn’t access food wasn’t a situation I’d ever expected to find myself in at Which?, and how best to respond was something that, quite honestly, kept me awake at night. 

Your feedback made it clear that help was needed, and urgently. 

Our calls for action

Teams from across Which? spoke with key external stakeholders such as supermarkets and government departments to find out exactly what was being done. 

We read through case studies from Which? Conversation and social media to build a picture of the situation, and to find out where there were still gaps in advice, help and action.

We want to see a simpler process for high-risk people to register for the type of support they need, whether it’s a free food box or prioritised supermarket deliveries. 

The UK’s four governments must step up efforts to ensure that nobody in the clinically extremely vulnerable group has fallen through the cracks. 

Let us know if the situation has improved – are you extremely vulnerable, and have you managed to get a delivery slot with a supermarket? 

Clearer communication and coordination

Better coordination between governments, local authorities, the food industry and local charities is urgently needed so that the vulnerable know how to access support, whether through their local supermarket or community based provision. 

This includes clearer communication about the measures in place, and greater consistency across the UK so that all vulnerable people, no matter their location, can get food and essential supplies

We’ll keep our channels up to date with the latest advice and news for coronavirus-vulnerable households. 

Finally, thank you for sharing your experiences.

While it’s been incredibly difficult not being able to get back to everyone, the comments you’ve left have led to this action, which can help change things for a large number of people.

Lorraine tokelove says:
5 May 2020

I look after my neice who is shielding and can not carry too much shopping at once to her home as I have a slipped disc. My mother in law is also shielding whom I also do shopping for. Both have not been able to access online shopping delivery spots as well as my own shopping. Where is the help!!! Please.

A Phillips says:
5 May 2020

I could only register with Asda and some 7 weeks on have not seen an available home delivery or click & collect slot let along managed to book one. I care for my 82 year old father so if I end up being ill he will have no-one. I therefore have to use local shops which are not only much more expensive but entail me having to go from one to another as I cannot get everything we need. In addition we are now finding some places are insisting on contactless payment. Neither of us have this having always used cash. So before long we won’t be able to purchase food anyway. It is unfair that we are being discriminated against. The whole situation is untenable and causing a lot of additional anxiety. We live in a student city which means there is no community or neighbours.

I am looking forward to Which? keeping us apprised of what they are able to achieve with this call for action on behalf of the most vulnerable members of our community. I expect they will be having discussions with the Secretaries of State for Food & Rural Affairs and for Health & Social Care – or at least with their appropriate under-ministers. I think Which? deserves at least that much respect.

Hannah, in her Introduction, does not say what sort of relationship Which? has with the government on this vital issue, only that “teams from across Which? spoke with key external stakeholders such as supermarkets and government departments to find out exactly what was being done”. I was hoping there would be ongoing high-level contacts with a view to achieving a much fairer form of coordination and organisation than we have seen thus far. As Hannah says, “the UK’s four governments must step up efforts to ensure that nobody in the clinically extremely vulnerable group has fallen through the cracks.” Unfortunately, it seems – from what many are continuing to report in Which? Conversation – that a large number already have fallen through the cracks in the system and because of their condition are far less able to pull themselves out of the situation. So this is vital, extremely urgent, and exceptionally important. I am not convinced the government accepts that yet.

I managed to get a slot from sainsburys as myself and husband are shielded but they missed several staple food items off the delivery and won’t redeliver!! have to wait for another slot in a week and to add insult to injury haven’t even processed the refund promised yet which they said was my only option when you’re shielding a refund isn’t an option you can’t eat that!!! I don’t think they’ve quite grasped the fact if they forget to deliver we have to go without!!!

Sheryl – Are you sure that Sainsbury’s left several items out of your delivery by mistake, or was it because they were unavailable and you had not allowed substitutions? If it was their mistake then they should rectify that promptly and not make you wait a long time without the products you ordered.

One of the lessons of this particular situation is that, at a time when product availability is quite unpredictable especially in popular and staple groceries, it is sensible to have a stock of canned or packaged alternatives and to slightly over-order to compensate for any shortfalls. This bridges over supply difficulties and once your own stock levels have stabilised you can revert to normal quantities and choices.

In my experience it is best not to order specific brands of product, or even flavours or varieties of product, in essential and staple categories and it is sensible to allow substitution where you can. By all means specify a certain loaf of bread but allow them to provide an alternative if possible. This gives the pickers the maximum leeway to send you goods that are as similar as they can find to what you ordered. If the substitution is a higher price Sainsbury’s will refund the difference in the form of a voucher off your next order; this normally takes about 48 hours to process.

Sainsbury’s only bill you on delivery day for the actual price of what they have delivered. They scan each item in your ‘trolley’ in order to make up the bill – so check your receipt to make sure they haven’t charged you for any items that were not actually received. You should have received an e-mail notification on the delivery day identifying any items they were not able to supply and confirming any substitutions. In my experience they are conscientious about treating customers properly and making good any mistakes.

It’s probably best to check your order online the night before delivery or collection and choose alternatives (if available) for what has been ordered but is now not in stock. I presume that the supermarket websites show national availability rather than at the store selected, so there may be items that are not available locally.

My feeling is that Sainsbury’s do actually align their on-line product list with availability at the store or hub from which it will be despatched. The problem is that once the pickers hit the aisles at 4:00 am on delivery day, stock can disappear fast – nothing is held or reserved against known orders.

I tend to set up our orders a few days before the selected delivery slot but there is no way of checking over the intervening period whether or not the items placed in the ‘trolley’ remain available until after it is too late to change the order. That is why I have to order more or alternative items to ensure there will be enough for the week or ten days ahead.

The process was robust enough to serve delivery customers when they only represented 10% of turnover but the additional volume of trade and deliveries have exposed its weaknesses.

I’ve been very happy with my fortnightly click & collect orders (not Sainsbury) and apart from lack of dried yeast and flour, nothing essential has been either not available or missing. Sheryl and some people I know have not been as lucky as us.

I’m surprised that the supermarkets have not encouraged customers to choose click & collect to make more delivery slots available for those who have to stay at home. Click & collect does not need refrigerated vans if frozen food can be taken from the store to the customer’s car, making it easier to increase capacity without the need for extra vans.

I sounded now many Wards there are! my father was Cecil Robert Ward. Me born 1937

Here in Scotland that’s already happening. On the advice of John
Swinney. Anyone who needs it, registers and a box of groceries etc…gets delivered to their homes once a week

In Fife this is working very well so far. I joined the text service at the start of April using the details in my shielding letter, and had the option to get weekly free food delivery and/or supermarket priority slots. I’ve been contacted by both Tesco and Sainsbury offering slots, and booked with Tesco this morning for delivery tomorrow. I’m not using the free food service because I have friends who can shop for me if necessary. I’ve also been contacted by the local council to make sure I had managed to register, and by my doctor to ensure everything is ok with me.

Ruth Lloyd says:
7 May 2020

I am also extremely vunerable, but have shopped online for everything, as ,unable to cope with shops,for over 12 years.I am disabled but also long termillneessess inc fibromyalgia/pheripheral neuropathy/COPD/Osteoarthritis etc etc ,taking Ketamine & morphine.
I do have priority slot access with tescos,but staying up to past midnight is having a serious affect on my health due to medication.The Tescos delivery men have been my “Support Network”,they are the only people I get to talk to once a week.
I have been ordering for others in same situation as me ,but never done online shopping,the only thing is I have had to have a “Bank Overdraft Holiday” as they give me cash ,as dont do online banking,
However the delivery men have said they are delivering to people with cars ,& who they see in the shops ,this is very unfair.
I dont seem to qualify on gov website yet i have DNR, in place due to FRAILTY,it is the combination of illnesses & medication ,that puts me extremely high risk.
However when i spoke to Tescos they felt i was justified.
It is very hard when u have relied on online shopping prior to now ,that it is made even harder.I did say to Tesco’s as there are a few of us out of 131 apartments who have tescos it’s a pity we couldn’t all order & have delivery at the same time each week ,The store Howard & Dennis who oversee deliveries have said ,just phone if u need something & we will get it to u.I dont want to take advantage unless absolutely necessary,but 8 cant thank them enough ,knowing that they DO CARE .As yet I have been lucky on substitutions which is then an issue as “I cant pop to a shop to get”,

David Williams says:
21 May 2020

I am on a treatment which includes intravenous immunosuppressants and have received multiple letters from hospitals, my GP and the NHS instructing me that I must “shield” myself for at least 12 weeks. I live within 500 metres of both a large Morrisons and a large Sainsbury’s supermarkets. I consider myself to be tech savvy.
I have tried for several weeks to get onto the website of either Sainsbury or Morrison. For at least 6 weeks, Sainsbury informed me that “I was not on their at risk list” and so I could get no further. Morrisons placed me on a waiting list of sometimes up to 30,000 customers, but then had no available delivery slots. Eventually, Sainsbury allowed me to access their system but never have any available delivery slots
I have tried to access the websites of either company at all times of the day and night but have never managed to find a delivery slot. Friends have also informed me that they have been unable to access these companies.
Iceland has been my salvation as they have delivery slots, deliver right on time as promised, but do not carry the range that the larger companies do. I’ve also arranged deliveries from local or specialist providers including a fruit & veg merchant, a fishmonger and a flour miller. Plus of course some extremely kind neighbours have been generous with their time.

Nick says:
23 May 2020

My wife is on the extremely vulnerable list, but was only put on it four weeks after it was launched, as a result of a letter from our hospital consultant to our GP practice (not at our instigation). There does not seem to us to be any communication of changes to the list after it was first launched.
As it happens we have a son living locally who does a Click and Collect for us with a local Asda. However, even that has not been trouble free. On the day before a delivery was due, it disappeared off their system. We complained to Asda who said we must not have completed the order properly when setting it up, and refused to reinstate it. However, Asda had sent us an email that morning saying the order could still be amended. After thinking it through, I decided the only explanation was that the Asda website either cannot cope with, or is not sufficiently clear in dealing with, situations where a customer is dealing with more than one order on the same visit to its website. We had booked a C&C for a week ahead and then set about amending the current order. We are continuing to use the Asda C&C but log out and log in again when dealing with different orders.

Chris says:
24 May 2020

I’ve been reading your article on getting groceries since lockdown (June 2020). I am shielding with my husband, who is over 70 and has had major heart surgery. I really identify with the anxiety and frustration caused by repeatedly trying to find home delivery slots; often waking in the night to keep searching.
I was extremely fortunate to have ‘Amazon Prime’ and realised I could use ‘Amazon Now’ for a few groceries and kind friends also helped. I didn’t want to take this for granted and so also started to search for Click and Collect slots as I had heard that many shops are organising this very well. Wickes, for example, have designated strict queues and collection at points outside the shop; with contactless throughout.
So, when I eventually managed to get a Click and Collect slot with Waitrose on 19th May I was thrilled. They make a point of claiming to have rigorous systems in place. I made a note on my order that we were shielding and naively expected the arrangements to be at least as good as a DIY store.
However, I was extremely upset when, arriving by car there were no signs directing customers to Click and Collect. There was a long queue around the building and I felt sick at the thought of joining it. I eventually realised that I was expected to go to the Customer Services Desk, exactly like the collection service before lockdown! A kind gentleman cleaning trolleys at the narrow entrance saw my distress and let me in. There was a bottle neck at this point and ironically I saw there was actually more room inside the shop. I would probably have been safer doing my own shopping!
I waited while the member of staff at the desk served someone else (leaning over the counter to be heard) and then showed my paperwork from afar as I had highlighted the order number. I was told I had to wait at the desk while my shopping was collected. At this point I’m afraid I was so upset as I had been dodging customers going in and out of the narrow entrance as well as staff arriving for work, that I said I would go out to my car and would they please bring my shopping out. The two members of staff involved were helpful but the system was appalling.
It was almost beyond belief that the person who brought my shopping to my car actually began to walk towards me to try to hand me a pen to sign for my shopping! I used my own.

I was really shaken by this experience and immediately cancelled the next order I had arranged. I sent an email to Waitrose Customer Services and received an automated reply saying they would not be able to respond due to the high volume of demand.

I wonder if others have alerted you to this? I know that all supermarkets have been under great pressure to adapt their services to help more people but Waitrose should not be allowed to advertise Click and Collect and imply it is a ‘safe’ service when it most certainly is not!

Thanks Chris. I had been meaning to post about click & collect arrangements.

I have been told that our local-ish Waitrose requires customers to go into the store for a click & collect order. I know that one of the customers made a complaint but did not find out if Waitrose had responded.

I have used click & collect at Morrisons and Tesco. There is no need to go into the shop and both have designated areas of the car park. This photo shows how the local-ish Tesco operates:

When it’s your turn you drive into the collection bay and wait until the member of staff has located your groceries from the van and then you can get out of your car and load up. The collection bay nearest the van is blocked off because that would not not provide keep staff and customers far enough apart. The arrangements at our local Morrisons keep staff and customers separate but parking for customers’ cars does not keep customers far enough apart.

Perhaps the best system would be for customers to drive into the collection bay, stay in their car, and let the member of staff load their boot.

I’ve tried and failed to get a Waitrose delivery, but a friend has offered to add anything I want to her order.

Sharing orders amongst friends and neighbours is a growing trend now there is a bit more confidence in the arrangements. Friends who shop at Aldi get things for us that we can’t get on the Sainsbury’s order and in return we supply stuff they cannot buy at Aldi. It works well and is all very amicable.

A long time ago in the 1950’s – before everyone had a car – a converted removals pantechnicon used to come round the new district where we lived about very fortnight. It was racked out with shelves and loaded with as much stock as you would find in a traditional corner shop – mainly packaged and canned foods but some fresh greengrocery. Since a butcher, fishmonger, baker and the milk float came round daily it provided most of my mother’s requirements. We still had to walk to a local shopping parade once a week to get butter, cheese, eggs, bacon [sliced to order], cold meat, fresh fruit and more exotic food. Of course there was no frozen food in those days. Contact was too close for social distancing but one day – I hope – that will be behind us, normal shopping can resume and there could still be a role for mobile stores, especially if motoring becomes severely curtailed.

Our local corner shop (one man) took orders for general groceries in a small notebook and delivered them in his Ford Popular after closing on a Friday evening. The butcher did the same.

That was the next stage of my experience of shopping, Malcolm. Eventually the mobile store stopped coming and although milk was still delivered daily the other vendors couldn’t make it pay [more women were at work every day so there was less custom available] so my mother would fill out a page in a notebook with her order and send me round to the grocer’s with it on my bicycle on a Tuesday. Wednesday was early-closing day and the grocer or his boy would come round with the goods during the afternoon. The grocer had a Thames Trader van – which was derived from the Ford Popular car – but the boy had to do it on the shop bicycle which had a large wicker basket mounted above the front wheel. Real Open All Hours stuff.

I would be interested in knowing whether other branches of Waitrose or other supermarkets expect customers to go into the store when they arrive to pick up a click & collect order.

I rang the Waitrose branch in question and explained my concern about customers having chosen click & collect to avoid going into the store were expected to go in when they came to collect their order.

If you are self-isolating you can ring the store when you arrive and your order will be delivered to the car, but please park near the store entrance. Of course that’s where you are likely to be near most people, so the answer would be to ask for the bags to be put in the boot. Perhaps I should write to their CEO.

I am pleased to report that our local-ish Waitrose no longer expects customers to go into the store for click & collect. You park in one of the designated parking places, ring the number displayed and staff bring crates of food out to your car. I placed a large order recently and everything was present and correct.

It can pay to complain.

brian says:
25 May 2020

Why can Sainsburys track what I have previously purchased and tell me, but after nearly 3 months they can still not find me on the Govt Extremely Vulnerable list ,

It’s been a hard time for supermarkets having to adapt to meet the large increase in number of people wanting to secure home deliveries or collection services. If you have chased up Sainsburys without success it might be time to look at other supermarkets that deliver in your area and keep checking at different times of the day.

I am over 70 and now have no car and can not walk to the shops due to a medical problem. However I have shopped with Ocado for years and am now dependent on them for food supplies – and other than a week or so of anxiety when they cancelled their reserve slots but all their other slots were taken – the system they put in place for established customers is working fine for me so far. Yes there are cancelled items (unusual for them)- but I have sufficient in reserve to manage those. I am just very glad all those years ago that I chose Ocado – so please give them a gold star.