The top doctor at NHS England says that people whose panic buying has left healthcare workers unable to buy food should “be ashamed” of themselves.
Stephen Powis, national medical director at NHS England, urged people to think of struggling NHS staff dealing with the coronavirus crisis.
His comments come amid reports that people on the front line in the fight against COVID-19 have found it difficult to buy what they need after working long hours.
Mr Powis referred to a video posted on social media of a critical care nurse named Dawn, who was reduced to tears after being unable to find any fruit or vegetables in a supermarket.
He said: “Frankly we should all be ashamed that that has to happen – it’s unacceptable. These are the very people that we all need to look after perhaps us or our loved ones in the weeks to come.”
“I would like to make a plea on behalf of all my colleagues in the NHS, nurses, doctors, paramedics and many, many others who are working incredibly hard at the moment to manage this outbreak of coronavirus.”
“It’s incredibly important that they too have access to food, to those essential supplies that they need.”
He was speaking in the daily Downing Street briefing which provides an update on the situation with the virus, which has so far killed scores of people in the UK.
In a change from the previous week’s conferences which have been held by the prime minister, it was the environment secretary George Eustice who spoke on behalf of the government.
He backed the comments of Mr Powis, saying: “There is more than enough food to go round and our food supply chain is able to expand production to cope with increased demand.
“Be responsible when you shop and think of others.
“Buying more than you need means that others may be left without and it is making life more difficult for those front line workers, such as our doctors and nurses and NHS support staff,” Mr Eustice said.
Asked whether the government could step in and put legal limits on what people could buy, Mr Eustice said the supermarkets were already limiting what people purchase.
“All of the major retailers are working together and exercising their own judgment on where it’s appropriate to put limits – item limits – on certain issues,” he said.
“Toilet roll is one, where, for reasons that are not really known, there was a spike early on, despite the fact that toilet roll is made in this country and they are able to expand production very quickly.”
When asked whether he would rule out the possibility of rationing or ration books, Mr Eustice restated that supermarkets were best placed to judge what limits should be put in place.
The comments come on a day when queues have been seen outside many supermarkets and wholesalers around the country.
Many who have been into grocery stores have been met with empty shelves and found they have been unable to purchase products like toilet roll, hand sanitiser and paracetamol.
Chief executive of the British Retail Consortium, Helen Dickinson, was also in the government press conference.
She said there was “plenty of food” in the supply chain, but the problem was getting it to the stores in good time.
“The issue is around people and lorries, so getting that food right into the front line onto our shelves, which is why we’ve seen some shortages,” she said.
“There is a billion pounds’ more food in people’s houses than there was three weeks ago, so we should make sure we eat some of it.”
Mr Eustice was asked whether it could be possible for the government, or maybe the military, to step in to make sure the goods could get to the supermarket.
He said: “We are obviously giving increasing thought within government over how we will protect those who may be self-isolating because they are vulnerable and I know more will be said about this in due course.”
Mr Eustice said that talks were ongoing with supermarkets to ensure that enough stock was making its way through to the food banks.
He added that the government was keeping “a close eye” on profiteering amid concerns some products have been sold online for inflated prices.