AS IT HAPPENED: Supermarket sweep — watching the shelves empty at the height of viral stockpiling

STRICT: Currently, queueing outside supermarkets is the new normal, with many outlets only allowing in one shopper at a time and banning children in some cases as Coronavirus continues to spread (Photo: Paul Caffrey)

During the month of March, the population went on a €363million panic-buying spree. The shops are much calmer now, but queuing outside supermarkets — with stricter controls on how many customers can enter a store at any one time — has become the new normal. In words, pictures and video, TheCity.ie’s Paul Caffrey has been keeping track of the “shopageddon” phenomenon since March 13

“No sausages. No teabags. No potatoes,” the senior security guard at a north Dublin supermarket boomed 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 — didn’t seem to have registered a word of his subdued summary.

But that was only the start: there was no bread left and most of the fruit, vegetables and frozen food were 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 — were lining back into the aisles. 

It was nearly 6pm on the evening of Friday, March 13 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 was 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 was an air of quiet panic. 

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

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

NEW ORDER: Local councils were quick to create new markings on walkways to reflect the social distancing rules intended to combat the spread of Covid-19 (Photo: Paul Caffrey)

At 11am on Thursday, March 12, the Taoiseach announced 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 that Thursday morning, when students were suddenly told to leave the building by 6pm and not return until further notice. 

Similar 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).

The original worst-case scenario, that the college won’t reopen at all for the rest of this academic year, now looks the most likely outcome. It’s been reported widely that lockdown measures are likely to continue beyond May 5.

SHUTDOWN: How TU Dublin announced the initial fortnight’s closure
(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 had 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, March 12. And she tweeted the following day: “Shop as normal.”

But her advice, echoed by Health Minister Simon Harris, was largely ignored. In scenes that have been echoed the world over, throngs of eager shoppers descended on supermarkets and chemists, even leading to some forced store closures.

Tesco in Clarehall on Dublin’s Malahide Road was forced to close temporarily on Thursday, March 12 for restocking, while Tesco Liffey Valley reportedly shut down for 30 minutes that day after a big influx of customers. Lidl and Aldi then introduced “product purchasing limits” on selected items.

Gardaí were placed on alert, with officers 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 the night of Thursday, March 12.

SLICED PANIC: This north Dublin Tesco was fully sold out of bread by midday on Friday, March 13 – but these shelves had been full only three hours earlier (Photo: Paul Caffrey)

On Friday March 13, 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 wisely makes straight for a well-stocked bread aisle. By midday, 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 be out of pocket as a result, 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. Wearing a standard-issue facemask, he’s 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 the afternoon of Friday March 13, with bananas, cucumbers, lettuce and potatoes all sold out by 4.30pm (Photo: Paul Caffrey)

When I return to the Tesco itself some hours later, at about 4.30pm, a team of three senior staff is 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, March 13 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 crowds 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.” 

Later that afternoon, I call round to my 101-year-old neighbour. 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.

Despite no official guidelines having yet been issued for the over-70s, she already intends to stay indoors at all times and is resigned to miss Mass, regular coffee mornings with her friends or any other activities involving the outdoors or groups of people for at least a fortnight.

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.”

DESERTED: Dún Laoghaire town centre at 5pm on the dot on a weekday in March 2020. For decades, this key intersection has been chock-a-block without fail during evening rush hour (Photo: Paul Caffrey)

Hours after our chat, several parishes around the country start cancelling church services to stop the spread of the virus. Present-day, you’d now find it extremely difficult to find any church holding a service on its premises. However, as reported by TheCity.ie, some priests have been finding ways to connect with the faithful online.

By the night of Sunday, March 15, 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)

And in line with the increase in the numbers of tragic deaths and reported cases of Covid-19 in Ireland — and based on scientific evidence — the Government has since strongly advised over-70s and anyone extremely medically vulnerable to “cocoon” at home.

This means that people in those at-risk groups should not leave their homes at all, even to go to the shops. However, the Government has confirmed this measure is advisory and not mandatory.

At midday on Saturday, March 14, I returned to Tesco to find the shelves well stocked again. But, pointing to the bread shelves, the head security guard told me: “If you need any bread, I would get it now.”

Present-day at the same supermarket, the numbers entering the premises are being more tightly controlled with customers made to queue outside — and only being allowed in one at a time. This is enforced by in-store security.

This has made queuing outside supermarkets the norm in April 2020, with families being encouraged to send only one person — or as few as possible — to get the weekly shop. Some supermarkets are reportedly even banning children now.

On Sunday March 15, all pubs were asked to close until March 29 at the earliest — but not all publicans immediately complied.

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

In the weeks since then, you’d be extremely hard pressed to find any public house open in the capital. But at least one Dublin publican this month started delivering pints and Sunday roasts to his customers.

How one popular north Dublin neighbourhood pub announced its closure on Sunday, March 15 on foot of Government advice (Photo: Paul Caffrey)

You can catch up with how “shopageddon” had eased off by March 26 — only for panic-buying to make a return on March 28, the morning after lockdown was announced — in our follow-up video.

WATCH: ‘The calm before the storm’

This video by TheCity.ie documents events of March 26-28 in the supermarkets and on the streets of Dublin

During a €363million nationwide panic-buying spree in the second half of March, €3.5million was spent on loo rolls alone, according to consumer habits researchers Nielsen.

Since then, Tesco.ie has asked its customers to shop in store if possible because home-delivery slots have become a “precious resource” that should be set aside for those who need it. The grocery giant has been experiencing high demand for its home-delivery service, with a message on its homepage for registered customers this week warning of low stocks.

This warning to would-be home-delivery service users appeared on Tesco.ie’s homepage for registered customers this week (Photo: Tesco.ie)

As of April 28, there are 19,877 confirmed cases of Covid-19 in the Republic of Ireland. There have been a total of 1,159 deaths related to the virus here.

Last Friday, April 24, Leo Varadkar warned the current lockdown could be extended by weeks if people don’t adhere to the restrictions. 

All important updates on the virus situation within the State are being posted here on the Government website as they happen.

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