British food banks raise alarm as coronavirus fears cut transport ties

LONDON: Food banks across Britain urged the government to step up support for vulnerable people on Monday, as fears over a new coronavirus strain led European countries to cut transport ties.

France shut its border to people and trucks, closing off one of Britain’s most important trade arteries with mainland Europe and raising the prospect of food shortages days before the Brexit cliff edge.

That combined with the already critical situation caused by the pandemic meant vulnerable people were facing a “double blow” with Christmas approaching, said Lindsay Boswell, chief executive of food charity FareShare.

“Across the UK, more 8 million people struggle to get enough to eat. Now … even more people may find it difficult to obtain affordable, nutritious food through the winter,” he said.

British supermarket group Sainsbury’s warned of gaps on shelves within days if transport ties were not quickly restored.

The Independent Food Aid Network (IFAN), representing 400 food banks, said the situation was “beyond worrying”, with charities providing food aid to the poor already facing record demand.

“Independent food banks or other grassroots food aid providers are already impacted by panic-buying and they will be the first to be affected by food shortages,” IFAN coordinator Sabine Goodwin told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson was to chair an emergency response meeting on Monday to discuss the flow of freight in and out of Britain.

“With the impact of coronavirus continuing to hit people’s incomes, this winter is already looking set to be food banks’ busiest ever,” said Emma Thorogood, a spokeswoman for the Trussell Trust, Britain’s largest food bank network.

The charity said it had delivered a record 1.2 million emergency food parcels to people between April and October, echoing IFAN’s report of an “unprecedented” 88% increase in need for food among some of its members.

“We cannot continue to depend on a fragile charitable food aid system to support rapidly growing numbers unable to afford food,” said Goodwin, calling for government action.

“What’s more, food bank volunteers and the people they support are now taking COVID-19 risks that would be avoidable if people could access adequate social security payments and decent wages.”

Britain’s Department for Work and Pensions, which is responsible for welfare, did not immediately return calls seeking a comment.

In November it announced a 170 million pound ($226 million) funding scheme to support children and hard-hit families with food and bills during winter months.

Andrew Forsey, national director of Feeding Britain, said the charity was ready to continue supporting families during Christmas, but the pandemic kept presenting major new challenges.

“Our plea to the government is to put in place the necessary financial and logistical safeguards to ensure that nobody in the New Year has to go without the food they need,” he said in a statement.


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