NEARLY half of Scotland's most vulnerable people are at risk of going hungry three months into lockdown because they have faced difficulty in accessing basic food and essential groceries.

It comes after reports of care home workers forced to queue in busy supermarkets several times a day for basics like bread and milk - risking further spread of the virus - because they could not secure the delivery slots that they needed to provide for their residents.

The survey by Which?, found that almost half (46%) of situationally vulnerable respondents in Scotland, including older people who require help accessing food, faced challenges getting groceries in the week before they were surveyed.

The consumer organisation Which? research  rom 29th May to 17th June found the Scottish response was higher than the UK average where two in five (40%) had problems.

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HeraldScotland: Brian Sloan

Brian Sloan, chief executive of Age Scotland called on the Scottish Government to take urgent action. He said: “It’s unacceptable that so many vulnerable older people in Scotland are still finding it difficult to access food more than three months into this crisis.

“We’re joining Which? to call for urgent action from the Scottish Government to ensure that no vulnerable person is left struggling to access basic food supplies.

“As lockdown eases for many of us, we have to remember that in Scotland there are tens of thousands of older people who will be shielding until at least the end of this month. They have to have continued access to priority delivery slots and guarantees that they can get essential groceries when they need them.

“We recognize the work done by supermarkets at the start of the crisis to help customers, but it appears that some of the most vulnerable older people are still not getting the service they so desperately need. We look to the Scottish Government to work with the retailers to come up with a solution as a matter of urgency.”

The research uncovered what was described as an "alarmingly mixed picture" with similar issues to Scotland in Wales, whle just one in four in England registered food issues and two in five in Northern Ireland.

The study found that in Scotland well over a third (39%) were relying on friends and family (39%) and supermarket deliveries (34%) to get food and essential groceries. Just under a quarter (24%) have been visiting supermarkets.

Over three in four vulnerable consumers in Scotland said it’s been more difficult to get food in lockdown.

Other concerning reports given to Which? included a 93-year-old lady who had to wait 11 weeks for her first food parcel despite registering in week one and a 71-year-old with shingles who had to wait a month between supermarket click and collect slots.

Among the shielded group - those who are the most high-risk to coronavirus and for whom the most help, including priority supermarket delivery slots and food parcels, has been offered - Which? found that there was still a very high proportion of people facing difficulty getting the food and essentials needed in the week they were surveyed.

This figure was highest in England where a third (33%) of those shielding had struggled, while three in 10 (31%) in Northern Ireland, over a quarter in Scotland (27%) and a quarter in Wales (25%) also faced difficulties.

Which? said it was concerned that while the easing of lockdown restrictions may make life easier for people who are comfortable with and able to go into shops again, there is still a huge risk that many of those who have already been struggling will now be cut further adrift as they may still not be able to leave their homes to get groceries - especially if it involves long queues, taking a taxi or using public transport.

The consumer organisation is calling for access to free food boxes, priority delivery slots and other relevant assistance to be made available for as long as medical advice or practical restrictions, such as social distancing, are in place. The help should be extended to include not only the most-high risk but also those who are situationally vulnerable and have so far been sidelined.

This would mean that central and local governments will need to accurately assess and identify which consumers remain vulnerable so that they can also be given access to appropriate support such as priority supermarket delivery slots or local food provision through other means.

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Sue Davies, head of consumer protection and food policy at Which? said:“It is a real concern that months into lockdown, the current system of food provision is still not working for so many of those who need it the most. Some people could now be looking at a cliff edge where shielding restrictions are lifted and they are left to fend for themselves, cut off from outside help in getting essential groceries.

“Which? is now calling for the UK’s four governments to work with the food industry, local authorities and charities to ensure a longer-term plan for supporting all of those who are at risk and need support is in place by the end of July, so that no vulnerable person faces difficulties in accessing the basic food supplies they need.”

Commenting on research by Which? showing vulnerable people in Scotland are struggling to access food supplies, Scottish Labour MSP Elaine Smith said: “These concerning findings raise serious questions about both the UK and Scottish Government’s handling of the emergency response to the pandemic. Now more than ever, we have a duty to protect the most vulnerable people in our society, and it is clear that many in this category have been failed.

“This has exacerbated the longstanding and growing issue of food poverty in Scotland. Last week I launched a consultation on my parliamentary bill to enshrine the right to food in Scots Law, and the current public health crisis has underlined the need to take action.”

A Scottish Government spokesman said: “We recognise that the impacts of coronavirus (COVID-19) have meant that many individuals, including those at increased risk of severe illness, face increased food insecurity.

“To support individuals to access the food and other essentials they need, we established a national helpline and have provided £15 million of funding for local authorities to extend support for those at risk until the end of September. This is in addition to the £30 million allocated in April and £12.6 million allocated to extend Free School Meal provision over the summer holidays.

“We have committed to continue to provide funded grocery packages for those who need them until the end of July, in line with shielding advice, and have awarded around £4.6 million to support third sector activity on food, including up to £2.1 million for FareShare.”