Coronavirus fears have sparked a national wholesale shortage in sanitiser lines, with the epidemic’s global impact hampering efforts to catch up.

Retailers confirmed that Nisa, Budgens, Premier, Spar, SOS Wholesale and others were out of the line and some other cleaning products.

A message from Nisa to its partnered stores confirmed a third consecutive week of sanitiser shortages. “We have limited stock in our warehouse, due to production or demand issues from the supplier,” the wholesaler said.

A senior source at a major distributor of household and personal care lines explained: “It’s purely demand. It’s being driven by the advice being issued by the NHS to use hand sanitiser, which is above and beyond what the market expected. 

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“Catching up with demand is being hampered by a shortage of bottles that come from China.”

Adam Hogwood, of Budgens of Broadstairs in Kent, said he’d sold 20 cases in a week, while a major wholesaler told betterRetailing that bulk purchasing of cleaning equipment from a small number of customers had stripped availability from its cash and carries.

Face masks have also been hit by a global shortage. Boots confirmed it was “currently out of stock of surgical face masks in stores and online” and was aware there was a “high demand” from customers. 

Partick Superstore in Glasgow claimed to have sold 41 boxes of masks at £1 each, netting more than £2,000 in sales in less than a week. 

Hygiene

Despite the customer demand and a rising UK case-count, the overall risk is unchanged at ‘moderate’ and NHS advice mostly listed the standard flu guidance of washing hands frequently and avoiding close contact with people who are unwell. 

Government coronavirus action plan

The newly published action plan shows that the government believes up to one-fifth of the UK workforce could be absent from work, but admits it is “uncertain of the impact of an outbreak on business”. 

It designates the current response status as “contain” and revealed potential measures if this is upgraded to the “delay” or “mitigate” phases.

These include reducing police response to concentrate on “serious crimes and maintaining public order”.

Stores suffering cashflow issues due to the crisis may be offered tax “mitigation” under HMRC’s Time To Pay system.

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Insurance

Avtar Sidhu, of St John’s Budgens Kenilworth, Warwickshire, said there were retailer concerns around staffing and exclusionary clauses in insurance cover. 

Asked to explain whether stores are able to claim for incidents related to the pandemic, such as store closures due to quarantines, a spokesperson for business insurers Retail Mutual told betterRetailing there was “no market-wide consistency of approach”.

The mutual explained: “Some policies only provide cover for notifiable diseases, and coronavirus is not currently notifiable in England and Wales.

“It can also depend on where the outbreak occurs. Some policies only provide cover for outbreaks on the premises of the insured. 

“Others specify a geographic boundary as to how far away from the insured premises the outbreak can be for cover to still apply.” 

It advised retailers to check their coverage.

Staffing

NFRN Legal told betterRetailing that normal statutory and contract-defined sickness rules and pay apply to staff that are unwell. “The outbreak of coronavirus does not create new legal rights or obligations,” it said.

If an employee is not too unwell to work, but has been told to isolate themselves by medical professionals (or been quarantined abroad), NFRN Legal said there may be “no legal requirement” to pay them.

However, it added that staff should be paid if the shop owner asks the employee not to come into work. The rules for staff not coming into work “for fear of catching the virus” would “vary hugely from case to case”. 

NFRN members requiring additional advice were advised to contact the NFRN Legal Hotline or to access the NFRN Legal Plus website.

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