As the UK Government tells everyone not to panic over Brexit, Bill Jamieson considers whether he should start start stockpiling Champagne, Belgian chocolate, toilet paper and soap, and looks out a wartime book on foraging.
“It might all sound a bit crazy,” admitted young Justyna Kowalczyk as she explained her ‘Brexit box’ neatly tucked under the kitchen table.
In the plastic container, she has stockpiled bottles of tonic water, coffee and French marmalade. And in a cupboard away from the kitchen, she has hoarded extra bottles of shampoo.
Crazy? Justyna is not alone. Grocery giant Premier Foods plans to stockpile raw materials in the run-up to Brexit as fears grow over gridlock at UK ports. The firm, which owns Bisto, Oxo and Mr Kipling, said it was taking steps “in the absence of certainty over the arrangements for the UK’s departure from the EU”. It says it expects to spend up to £10 million on the preparations.
Mondelez, the owner of Cadbury, is stockpiling ingredients, chocolates and biscuits. Meanwhile, Airbus, which makes aircraft wings in the UK, has asked suppliers to build inventories. Carmakers are joining in. Jaguar Land Rover has warned of huge costs, disruption and job losses if there is a no-deal Brexit.
In the UK Government’s regular worst-case planning updates to business, pharmaceutical firms have been advised to keep six weeks’ worth of drugs in stock. AstraZeneca is increasing its drugs stockpiles in Europe by about 20 per cent in preparation for a no-deal.
Is this a business-only hoarding, or can we all join in? For we are now at crunch decision-time – yes, another one – in the mad miasma of Brexit negotiations: a looking-glass world of double backstop, conditional exit clauses, extended customs union alignment, backstop to the backstop – and in the background the rising stench of putrefying foodstuffs and vital supplies rotting in motorway lorry parks.
“No need for panic,” says the Government – a cue for the rest of us to do just that. Contingency plans have been made to ensure no shortages of critical supplies. But when the Government says ‘don’t panic’, no clearer signal could be given for a siege of Tesco. Who dares take anything for granted?
The list of stockpilers is growing daily. Questions looming ever larger in households are: should we have a Brexit Box? And, if so, what might we put in it?
Easy though it is to dismiss all this as Project Fear, stockpiling poses big problems. For just-in-time manufacturers, spare parts and components can be stored in sheds. But for food retailers and consumers, fridges are vital. But are our fridges big enough? Just over 40 per cent of UK food is imported, with about 30 per cent coming from the EU.
Food retailers are particularly concerned not to say anything that might trigger a flood of panic buying. There’s nothing worse than the appearance of empty shelves to spark a wholesale scramble for what remains. Tim Lang, professor of food policy at London’s City University, says “supermarket bosses are a bit more concerned than they are letting on”. Mike Coupe, chief executive of Sainsbury’s, told the BBC this week that “if delivery lorries face increased customs checks and start backing up at ports the whole system breaks down. The food sector, just like the manufacturing sector, operates to just-in-time schedules”.
Contingency planning is moving up the business agenda. Wild Water, which stores imported raw ingredients and finished food, has rented extra space, and is building a large facility in south Wales. Managing director Ken Rattenbury says customers were “ultra-concerned” about food being held up at ports. Companies are “worried about the raw ingredients to be able to make ready meals, they’re concerned about flour, they’re concerned about juices. Everything you can think of that we use for food. Everybody is looking to stockpile.”
So my challenge today is to compile a list of items for households for an emergency Brexit basket. How big a box will we need? A basket? A hamper? A trunk? And what would we put in? Every home should have an emergency store. Flour and yeast should be stockpiled. French wines would be an early option for many, swiftly followed by toilet rolls, soap, light bulbs, tinned fruit, pasta products, Belgian chocolate, salt, sugar, Champagne and medicines of all sorts – headache pills, cough medicine, incontinence pads. Oh, and a radio and long-life batteries.
It’s the prospect of a giant snarl-up at Dover with all the new regulatory paperwork that most concerns people. But as one door closes, others might swing open: illicit landings along the east coast for example, bringing a much-needed revival of fishing villages along the Lothian, Fife and Tayside coasts.
Seed potatoes and packages of mixed vegetable seeds would also be sensible, together with a guide book on foraging. Back in wartime, the Government produced an excellent pamphlet on hedgerow food. Today, with the swing towards vegetarianism and sustainable living, guides such as The Forager’s Handbook offer practical advice on the cornucopia of delights that can be found everywhere from waste ground to woodland.
A ‘Brexit-Means-Brexit’ Happy Hamper might include nettles, dandelions, wild garlic, wild berries and nuts, nasturtiums and medicinal plants such as foxglove and rose hips, together with sphagnum moss for wound dressing. For determined meat-eaters, there’s always that mainstay of fricassee delights along the length of the M8 – readily available roadkill.
And it’s not all downside. The Centre for Economics and Business Research reckons there could be a short-term boost. With some £100 billion of raw materials and semi-manufactured goods imported from the EU last year, were companies to build up, say, a three- or four-month buffer, this would imply up to £40 billion in unplanned extra purchasing – and a boost, albeit inedible, to GDP.
And finally, there’s the inestimable benefits of a slimmer, healthier island: fewer Italian pizzas, less Irish butter. Panic hoarding might see us through all of three days before supply exhaustion. But any serious longer-term disruption to food supplies could be countered by the re-introduction of ration cards. Obesity and all its baleful associated conditions would decline. Allotment wheelbarrows would be heavier, our waistlines thinner.
And household enterprise and ingenuity would spring to the fore. Brexit fudge might be utterly inedible. But our Brexit Boxes? They could prove the re-making of us.