Supermarket sweep: a day watching the shelves empty as viral stockpiling continues

SLICED PANIC: This north Dublin Tesco was fully sold out of bread by midday on Friday – but these shelves had been full only three hours earlier. (Photo: Paul Caffrey)

TheCity.ie’s Paul Caffrey explores how “shopageddon” has taken hold in Ireland, despite Government warnings against panic-buying. As An Garda Síochána get the green light to supervise supermarkets, we went to investigate exactly how bad the shopping situation is.

“No sausages. No teabags. No potatoes,” the senior security guard at a north Dublin supermarket booms with a wry grin to a colleague over his two-way radio. 

The weary-looking herds of shoppers rushing from one aisle to another — just trying to grab what they can — don’t seem to have registered a word of his subdued summary.

But that’s only the start: there’s no bread left either and most of the fruit, vegetables and frozen food are gone, too — even though there was a full delivery to this store at eight o’clock this morning. 

Meanwhile, queues for the checkouts — one family after another with an overflowing full-size shopping trolley — are lining back into the aisles. 

It’s nearly 6pm on Friday evening at Tesco Kilbarrack in north Dublin — 31 hours since Leo Varadkar announced a virtual shutdown of the country on account of the global Covid-19 outbreak — and the place is full of people completely ignoring Government pleas not to panic buy. 

Throughout this large store, which acts as a lifeline to thousands of families and elderly people in the long-established north Dublin areas of Raheny, Kilbarrack, Coolock, Artane and Donaghmede, there’s an air of quiet panic. 

Even though people here are keeping calm and being respectful to others, many seem grimly determined to buy up everything in sight.

However, this “emergency” buying isn’t quite what you might put at the top of your essentials list for up to a fortnight of being housebound. At one checkout, a man is hurriedly purchasing exactly 20 Easter eggs — and not much else. 

At 11am on Thursday, the Taoiseach made an announcement from Washington that all colleges, schools and various other public facilities would close for at least two weeks.

Up until that moment, students at TU Dublin Aungier Street had been assured by college officials it was largely “business as usual”, with classes proceeding as normal. 

Everything changed on Thursday morning, when students were suddenly told to leave the building by 6pm and not return until further notice. 

Similarly to the situation in supermarkets, the college library was gripped by a sense of panic as students anxiously rushed to get the books and other materials they’d need to complete their assignments (not due for months).

There is a high chance that the college will not reopen at all for the rest of this academic year. Arlene Foster stated that schools in Northern Ireland are potentially facing an unprecedented 16 weeks off from their education. 


SHUTDOWN: TU Dublin announces a fortnight’s closure – but how long will it last?
(Photo: Twitter/TU Dublin)

At supermarkets across Ireland, the Fine Gael leader’s announcement led to huge queues — despite Business Minister Heather Humphreys pointing out there was “no need” whatsoever to panic-buy, as retailers and distributors have a “sufficient supply chain”. 

“If people go out and buy products that they don’t need to stockpile, they are going to cause a problem,” Minister Humphreys warned on Thursday. And she tweeted on Friday: “Shop as normal.”

But her advice, echoed by Health Minister Simon Harris, was largely ignored as throngs of eager shoppers descended on supermarkets and chemists, even leading to some forced store closures.

The phenomenon isn’t unique to Ireland. In Britain, pleas by major retailers for shoppers to “be considerate” have gone unheeded by many, as ITV News reports.

WATCH: How Coronavirus-linked panic buying is also sweeping the UK’s supermarkets (Source: YouTube/ITV News)

Back home, Tesco in Clarehall on Dublin’s Malahide Road was forced to close temporarily on Thursday for restocking, while Tesco Liffey Valley reportedly shut down for 30 minutes that day after a big influx of customers. 

Since then, Lidl and Aldi have introduced “product purchasing limits” on selected items. Aldi imposed a four items per customer limit on tissues, antibacterial handwash, pasta and tinned tomatoes, according to RTÉ. 

Gardaí are now on alert, with officers being told to “patrol the environs of supermarkets and chemists, with a view to providing comfort and reassurance” to shoppers, according to a memo sent by Assistant Garda Commissioner Pat Leahy to rank-and-file members on Thursday night.

On Friday, my first visit to Tesco Kilbarrack is at 9.30am, when stocks are at healthy levels thanks to an 8am delivery.

I recognise a friendly local taxi driver who tells me he’s been sent down by “the missus” to get the shopping as he’s not working today. He wisely makes straight for the currently well-stocked bread aisle. By midday today, every last sliced pan here will be gone. 

Normally stationed at the Dublin Airport rank, he’s decided that his normal place of work is a no-go zone due to the Coronavirus outbreak.

The self-employed middle-aged Dubliner will lose his income for the next few days at least. But he’s accepting of the situation and even appears relaxed about it. 

“There’s no way I could work the airport today. They’ll all be coming back from Cheltenham, full of booze and all over each other, then jumping into my car. Not to speak of the people who could be flying in from anywhere in the world. I’ll sit tight for a few days — it’s for the good of our health, after all,” he tells me.

At a café opposite the Tesco, a cautious barista is very short on customers today. He is wearing a standard-issue facemask and trying to offload his best fresh pastries for the knockdown price of €2 each.

This Tesco store nearly ran out of all fruit and veg by Friday afternoon, with bananas, cucumbers, lettuce and potatoes all sold out by 4.30pm (Photo: Paul Caffrey)

When I return to the Tesco itself at about 4.30pm, a team of three senior staff are standing near the frozen food section looking suitably grave in a huddle with their arms folded. 

The bread section is completely cleared out; I’m told all sliced pans were gone by midday — while most of the fruit, vegetables and frozen food has also disappeared. 

The most senior-looking one remarks quietly to his number that panic-buying in supermarkets wasn’t this chronic even just before the crippling March 2018 snow blizzards that forced us all to stay indoors due to the “risk to health”. It took only four days before that extreme weather eased off and life was largely back to normal. 

The managerial team walk around surveying the empty and near-empty shelves, making notes on their clipboards. Pointing to one well-raided cosmetics shelf, one of the executives remarks: “Those will all be gone by tomorrow.”


How one newspaper reported the disquiet in our shops in its Friday edition
(Photo: Twitter/Irish Daily Star)

At the checkouts, an elderly woman queuing just ahead of me with a modest number of purchases in her black and red tartan wheelie bag is bemused by the slightly frenzied atmosphere and throngs of customers surrounding her. 

“I don’t know what all the fuss is about,” she calmly tells me. “Though, I’m just buying for myself. At least this has made them open a few more checkouts than they normally do, but it’s still not enough, is it?”

Reflecting on the public health emergency at hand, she tells me: “I’m 89, so I’m supposed be in the ‘at risk’ category, aren’t I? But I’m not letting it worry me. I don’t see why we can’t go about our business as normal — as long as we don’t travel.” 

But non-stop media coverage of Coronavirus — often focusing on worst-case scenarios — is making some elderly and vulnerable people feel they shouldn’t even venture beyond their front door. 

As the World Health Organisation (WHO) points out in its official advice: “A near-constant stream of news reports about an outbreak can cause anyone to feel anxious or distressed.”

Those words are ringing in my ears when I call round to my 101-year-old neighbour that afternoon. She’s exceptionally fit and alert and still leads an active life. I’ve known her since I was a small child and she’s never seemed afraid of anything before.

With the current health crisis, this experienced world traveller intends to stay indoors at all times and won’t go to Mass, regular coffee mornings with her friends or any other activities involving groups of people for at least the next fortnight, she tells me. 

I try to convince this centenarian that, if nothing else, she’d be perfectly safe taking a local walk to get some fresh air — but she’s not convinced. Gesturing towards her television that’s switched to standby while we chat, she insists: “I won’t be going anywhere until this is all over. It’s out there somewhere, so I could catch it.”

FLOCKDOWN: By Sunday night, this north Dublin Catholic church was in shutdown, with a typed notice on the main doors advising parishioners: “Mass in this church is suspended until further notice.” (Photo: Paul Caffrey)

Hours after our chat, several parishes around the country start cancelling church services to stop the spread of the virus. Bishop of Limerick Brendan Leahy orders the cancellation of Sunday Mass in his diocese for at least three weeks, with similar measures in place across the country including Dublin, Galway and Meath by the end of the weekend. 

Back at Tesco at midday on Saturday, the shelves seem well stocked again. But, pointing to the bread shelves, the head security guard tells me: “If you need any bread, I would get it now.”

Meanwhile, with 40 new cases of Covid-19 confirmed by the Department of Health by Sunday night, all pubs have now been asked to close until March 29 at the earliest — but not all publicans immediately complied.

TheCity.ie called to three Dublin public houses on Sunday evening and while two were closed completely, one was still defiantly doing a brisk trade.

How one popular north Dublin neighbourhood pub announced its closure on Sunday on foot of Government advice (Photo: Paul Caffrey)

Health Minister Simon Harris said the shutdown of pubs was no excuse for people to hold “Covid-19 parties” and he urged the public to show “cop-on”.

Amid the Coronavirus crisis, President Michael D Higgins has called for “solidarity and concern for the well-being of our fellow citizens…in particular those who are most vulnerable.”

By Sunday night, there were 169 confirmed cases of Coronavirus in the Republic, and a total of 214 people infected on the island of Ireland. In around 80% of cases, Covid-19 will be a mild to moderate illness, according to a large Chinese study.

For more information relating to Covid-19 and adequate safety measures, please visit the WHO website here.

All important updates on the virus situation within the State are being posted on the Government website here: https://www.gov.ie/en/news/7e0924-latest-updates-on-covid-19-coronavirus/

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