MARCH was the busiest month on record for supermarkets across Britain as shoppers rushed to stockpile food and drink to see them through the coronavirus pandemic.

Grocery sales across the UK rose by 20.6 per cent to almost £11 billion in the last four weeks, beating even the rate of Christmas shopping, usually the busiest time of the year, according to new information from Kantar, the data analysis company.

The average household increased its spending by £63 over the last four weeks with shoppers in London, where the virus hit first, spending a quarter more than they usually do.

More details showed consumers particularly increased their shopping in the middle of the month with 88 per cent of households visiting a grocer between March 16 and 19, making an average of five trips each. This meant 42 million extra shopping trips in only four days.

Shoppers have also built up an extra £199m stockpile of alcohol, a rise of 22 per cent, and spent 28 per cent more on stock cupboard ingredients and frozen foods.

All 10 of the main supermarkets grew in the last 12 weeks with German discounters Lidl and Aldi performing the best, growing by 18 and 11 per cent respectively over the last 12 weeks. At 7.4 per cent, Sainsbury's was the best performer of the traditional big four supermarkets with Tesco growing by 5.5 per cent, Asda 4.9 and Morrisons at 4.6.

Last night, Aldi, Asda, Morrisons and Waitrose announced they were easing restrictions on some of their products which were imposed in the wake of the stockpiling earlier this month.

The Kantar data came as the Horticultural Trades Association warned seasonal plants worth £200m that have been grown for sale in garden centres will have to be destroyed because of the coronavirus lockdown.

Meanwhile, Downing St was forced to clarify that there was no specific restriction on the number of times people could go shopping after a Cabinet minister suggested a once-weekly limit in to help combat Covid-19.

Grant Shapps, the Transport Secretary, also suggested Britons should only buy the essentials in their weekly trip to the supermarket.

He told the BBC: "People know the rules that have been set; try and shop just once a week. Just do the essentials, not everything else."

Asked about Mr Shapps' comments about "once a week" shopping trips, Boris Johnson's spokesman pointed out: "The guidance does not specify that, no, the guidance says it should be 'as infrequent as possible'."

For some people, he added, "their judgement will be that that will be once a week. But it's not what the guidance specifies".

In a separate development, as figures showed Britain's economy stagnated at end of 2019 with household spending failing to grow for first time in four years and business investment tumbling ahead of what many experts now believe is an inevitable recession, Mr Shapps suggested non-essential workers should continue to go into work, if there was no alternative, in order to avoid crashing the economy.

He told ITV's Good Morning Britain: "The Government's view is that we need to be in a position where, when this lifts, we are able to re-start the economy.”

Noting how there were risks in every direction, he said: "But one of the things we need to be careful not to do is completely crash our economy to the point where it is impossible or very difficult to pick up again afterwards.

"So, we have been straightforward and said, if you're a key worker go out, but if you can't do your job from home then it is acceptable to go out and do that work.

"Otherwise, we will be in a position where we can't re-start the economy and millions of people will be forced into a poverty situation that would do more harm than the virus itself. That's really the balance," added the Hertfordshire MP.

Elsewhere, dozens of former Government ministers and senior MPs have backed a campaign to provide the families of NHS front line "heroes" with compensation should they die from Covid-19;