Panic buying and empty streets as coronavirus fears intensify

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An Inverness city centre store yesterday, with empty shelves caused by panic buying resulting in anger and frustration.

Coronavirus crisis grips city

by Colin Campbell                                                                                                                 Tuesday, March 17

INVERNESS bore comparison to a typical Christmas eve in the Highland capital yesterday – apart from being utterly devoid of any air of celebration.

 There was a surge of activity in the shops during the day, leading to some large store shelves being cleared. And at night the city centre was almost completely deserted, with pubs and restaurants virtually empty.

 Some people – perhaps many – believe the present situation involves overwrought citizens responding irrationally to an over-hyped threat, but there is no doubt the coronavirus outbreak and risks are now impacting heavily on daily life in the city.

 Our coverage began with a receptionist at an Inverness hotel receiving a furiously frustrated text message from her sister at 8am, saying she had been unable to find the baby products she needed in stores, and angrily blaming “panic buyers” for the shortage.

 And more than 12 hours later another young mum, with children aged 10 and six, said she had been unable to find toilet rolls, Calpol or even paracetamol, with meat produce also being in extremely short supply.

 “I’m not so worried about the coronavirus,” she told us. “But I am worried when we go into stores and can’t find any of the stuff we’re looking for.”

 As a result of the panic-buying activity of others, she and her family, she said, had over-bought themselves, and piled fresh purchases into a large freezer they seldom use.

 The inevitable knock-on effect is causing frustration all round.

 The coronavirus crisis was ramped up after Prime Minister Boris Johnson yesterday asked the public to minimise “social contact” and to stay away from bars, restaurants, cinemas and theatres. He spoke as the rate of coronavirus infections and the number of deaths rose steeply.

 There is now the possibility that these venues will soon be ordered to close down, as has happened in Italy and Spain. There is much greater concern that city stores may start to close also.

 However, late last night the Tesco Metro store in the city centre looked well-stocked  – apart from a couple of rows of empty shelves which had been stripped bare during the day apparently within minutes. The meat section of the store was also virtually empty.

 Major retail outlets have given assurances that the normal supply chain to their stores across the country will remain unaffected.

 During the day in Inverness text messages were being widely shared between friends and wider family with information on where the most sought-after goods – particularly baby products – had again become available. By the time recipients had dashed to city stores, they often found what they were seeking was gone.

 Our Ross-shire correspondent writes: “The seriousness of the ever spreading illness can’t be underestimated. However, as some people shy away from visiting the large supermarkets to reduce the risk of contracting the coronavirus, the more traditional High Street shops in the Highlands, and here in Dingwall – bakers, butchers and fishmongers, are reporting a significant upswing in trade.

 “It seems that shoppers are returning in numbers to smaller, local, independent traders who have long histories in their communities. It’s obvious these family-managed concerns are proving to be increasingly popular as folk attempt to avoid large, overcrowded environments where they could find themselves confronted by people ‘panic buying’ a range of items and the potential of encountering someone carrying coronavirus is significantly higher. 

 “Entering the small shops where a customer is attended to by a member of staff who knows exactly what they’re looking for is a significant comfort to the ever growing numbers of genuinely concerned citizens. Although these smaller outlets are becoming very much busier than normal customers still find themselves joining just a handful of other folk in a queue to be served. Visiting the large supermarkets means inevitably encountering many hundreds of folk and therefore the possibility of something being passed on is very much higher. The supermarkets are selling vast amounts of toilet rolls while small, traditional businesses are witnessing increasing sales of what they’ve always sold.”

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Empty streets and near-empty bars and restaurants in the city centre last night.

 Meanwhile, Monday night is always a quiet night in Inverness city centre but last night the precinct was surely as empty as it’s ever been.

 Whether this was due to the coronavirus risk is open to speculation. The real evidence will emerge later in the week. But around 9pm pubs and restaurants had so little trade they might as well have been closed.

 The sprawling bar at Encore Une Fois in Tomnachurich Street was empty apart from two customers. The Glenalbyn opposite was deserted apart from some activity at the pool table. The Rocpool restaurant had only a couple of tables occupied, as did Zizzi’s in Bridge Street. The Caledonian Bar on High Street was empty. Lauders in Baron Taylor’s Street had only two or three customers. The landmark Gellions had only a smattering of customers listening to loud music blaring on to the street. Staff in Max’s takeaway had no-one to serve.

 In all directions, the streets of the city centre were completely deserted.

 These are the earliest days in the coronavirus crisis. But if this is a foretaste of what’s to come the signs are ominous for commercial activity in the city centre. The health risks posed by the coronavirus are now hitting home hard on many fronts.

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