MPs say government must appoint food security minister in wake of pandemic

Ministers should consider enshrining in law a right to food and must appoint a new minister for food security, according to an influential committee of MPs, after the coronavirus pandemic exposed serious problems with the government’s handling of the food system in a crisis.

A second wave of Covid-19 could sharply increase the number of people at risk of food shortages and hunger, which already stands at 6.6 million, including 1.7 million children, the report by the environment, food and rural affairs select committee found.

Related: Pandemic has exposed Britain’s vulnerabilities says food policy review

Panic buying – which was often just consumers responding to the need to eat all meals at home – and shortages of some staples in the shops, characterised the start of the Covid-19 crisis after the government failed to communicate properly with the public and the food industry, the MPs on the environment, food and rural affairs committee found in a new report.

The government “appeared unprepared” for the impact of the closure of restaurants and cafes, they said, and was too slow to provide guidance for workers in the food supply sector.

They warned that the UK faces more serious threats to the food supply, including a coronavirus second wave, the possibility of a no-deal Brexit, and in the longer term the climate crisis, this will require more interventions by government. The UK was kept supplied during lockdown by imports of food from overseas, but any disruption to cross-border trade could provoke more serious impacts on food availability.

During the early stages of lockdown, there were reports of farmers pouring fresh milk away, or unable to find a market for meat and fish. There were calls for a land army to bring in the harvest, if foreign workers could not be brought in, and concerns over food waste as well as shortages.

Neil Parish, chair of the environment, food and rural affairs select committee, said: “Despite warnings from other countries, it seemed as though the government was constantly playing catch-up in trying to support the food industry during the crisis. There were misunderstandings in government about where and how people were going to get their food just before and during lockdown.”

He warned that the “disturbing spike in demand for food aid” was “likely to get worse before it gets better”, with people thrown out of work and the economy in recession.

Kath Dalmeny, chief executive of the food and farming alliance Sustain, said MPs were right to raise concerns, as the Covid-19 crisis had highlighted a longstanding problem. “For far too long, the government has ignored the fact that millions of people experience household food insecurity every day. They won’t even measure it properly, so that we can all face the facts and discuss what to do about it,” she told the Guardian.

She called on the government to ensure that older people and those with disabilities, who received food parcels while shielding, were not left without provision, and for ministers to prepare now in case of a second wave.

The committee paid tribute to key workers in the food industry, as well as food banks and other food redistribution organisations catering to vulnerable people, whom the chairman commended as having “reacted heroically”. The response from department for environment, food and rural affairs was also judged satisfactory in many ways in the end. But the MPs insisted more must be done to ensure a better response to looming threats.

a man standing in front of a building: The report said panic buying at the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak was partly a result of the government failing to communicate with the public and food industry.

© Photograph: Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP The report said panic buying at the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak was partly a result of the government failing to communicate with the public and food industry.

Geraint Davies, Labour MP for Swansea West, and a committee member, pointed to the fact that 6.6 million people were currently in food insecurity, amid fully stocked supermarkets and while furlough provisions remain in place.

“This is the shameful condition of the UK after ten years of austerity,” he said. “But there’s much worse to come. We face the cliff-edge of the end of furlough in October, as the UK braces itself for a second wave of coronavirus followed by a disorderly Brexit. The combination of a greater financial squeeze on the poorest families alongside a resurgence of disease and food shortages will hurtle millions more into food insecurity and hunger in the UK.”

Earlier this week, the National Food Strategy recommended extending free school meals to another 1.5 million children living in low-income families, and for school holiday clubs offering healthy meals. The government was forced into a U-turn in June after the Manchester United football player Marcus Rashford raised concerns over children going hungry when the vouchers they were given to replace free school meals were to be stopped over the summer.

Source: Theguardian.com

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