The escalating coronavirus crisis is has prompted a series of responses from the co-op movement, with event cancellations, lobbying efforts to support co-op businesses which suffer disruption, and retailers stepping up to meet challenges around panic-buying.
Sector body Co-operatives UK says it has been inundated with calls from member co-ops seeking advice on issues such as colleague safety, sick leave, self-isolation and how to provide effective governance and member participation if AGMs cannot be held.
In a post on its website, it says: “As we stand in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic we know this is an incredibly difficult time for everyone – including of course our members and the co-op movement more widely. We stand in solidarity with you and will provide what support we can over the coming months.
“In response to a growing number of member concerns we have produced practical HR and governance advice. We are also urging government to ensure co-ops are covered in recently announced measures designed to help small businesses cope with COVID-19 disruptions.”
A document sharing platform will be established, it adds, so members can easily access policy and practice guidance developed by various co-operatives in advanced stages of their planning.
In terms of assisting co-op businesses through the crisis, Co-operatives UK says it has “examined the extensive measures government is introducing to help small businesses cope with the disruptions caused by COVID-19, as outlined in this week’s budget.
“We need to ensure co-ops are adequately covered in these support measures and as a result have written to the secretary of state for business, energy and industrial strategy.”
It is lobbying the government to confirm that co-ops are as eligible as any other business for the various loans and grants being put in place by the government to help businesses through the period of disruption.
Concern over the financial impact of the crisis on co-op businesses was also noted by Co-operative and Community Finance (CCF), which said in a note on its website that it had contingency plans in place to stay operational through any eventuality.
“We are continuing to monitor the latest reports and advice from the government, Department of Health, the NHS and the World Health Organisation and should it be required the business is able to support all staff working from home.
“We are following government guidance for businesses and are also looking at reducing the requirement for people to travel on public transport (for example, making use of telephone or video-conferencing rather than face-to-face meetings) so current diaries may need to be re-organised.”
Meanwhile, events are being called off across the movement, with the Co-op Party cancelling all branch and party council meetings until further notice, as well as its Disabled Members’ Network launch on 1 April. The Party has also come off an election footing now that May’s local elections have been postponed for a year.
Open Co-op, which works to support a collaborative, sustainable new economy, has postponed its Open: 2020 event in London on 11-12 June. Organisers are planning an online event for those dates instead, and says tickets for the event will be valid for the rescheduled dates, which will be announced later.
“Covid 19 will not stop us collaborating, it just means is we have to get better at working together in a decentralised but coordinated way,” say organisers on the Open Co-op website.
Co-op retailers are also facing the effects of the crisis, which has sparked a wave of panic buying of certain items. Like other retailers, UK consumer co-ops have taken steps to limit the number of certain items a customer can purchase, and have been working with suppliers to ensure the shelves are stocked.
Steve Browne, general manager – food at the Heart of England Co-operative Society, said: “We have seen signs of panic buying, so to support our customers we have introduced restrictions on certain items, with each of our customers able to purchase a maximum two of the same items.”
Mr Browne said the items affected by the restrictions include toilet rolls, kitchen towels, tissues, antibacterial soap, sprays and wipes.
Similar measures have been reported at other retail co-ops, including Lincolnshire Co-op and Central England Co-op, whose chief executive Debbie Robinson said: “We are in daily contact with our colleagues and suppliers to ensure our excellent hygiene standards are maintained. We are also in contact with our food redistribution partners at Fareshare Midlands who are working to ensure that vulnerable and elderly people and those most in need in our communities don’t go without at this difficult time.”
Channel Islands Co-op says it has not had to resort to such rationing measures but is monitoring the situation and has urged customers not to panic buy.
A Channel Islands spokesperson added: “We have a crisis team in place who are meeting on a weekly basis to work around the logistics of some stores having to close, or the workforce being halved. We are currently in the process of making sure we have IT in place to help colleagues work at home.
“We have also put a plan in place to be able to deliver food parcels to vulnerable islanders who have no other means of getting food and are self-isolating.”
In an update to colleagues, Midcounties Co-op said: “We have taken some immediate steps to both help limit the spread of the virus and to help support our customer-facing colleagues. These steps include canceling or postponing all non-essential meetings, colleague or member gatherings during March.
“We will continue to review internal events scheduled to take place in April or May and will keep you informed of any changes to those.
“We have also taken the decision to generally suspend all community volunteering activity until the end of March but are working with our partner organisations to ensure we continue to offer other support.”
A spokesperson for the Co-op Group said demand for food and drink products has not risen but “because of increased sales of hand sanitiser, antibacterial soap and wipes, and toilet roll, we are temporarily limiting purchases on these items to a maximum of three per customer to maintain stocks and choice for all our customers.”
In terms of potential disruption to supplies from a pandemic, the spokesperson added: “Retailers are used to dealing with disruption to their supply chain – think of preparations for Brexit, the Beast from the East cold weather snap and CO2 issues of last summer.
“We are working with suppliers to try and avoid any shortages and maintain stock levels in stores and have contingency plans to continue serving communities.”
The Group has also co-signed a joint letter from the UK’s leading grocery retailers, alongside Waitrose, Tesco, Sainsburys, Asda, Morrisons, M&S, Lidl, Aldi, Costcutter, Iceland and Ocado, paying tribute to “colleauges in stores and supply chains who are working day and night to keep the nation fed”.
The letter said retailers were working with the government to keep supplies running and repeated pleas for customers to avoid buying in such quantities that meant other people had to go without.
Any Co-operatives UK members with advice enquiries related to coronavirus can contact [email protected] or call 0161 214 1751.