Government outsourcing of food parcels forced clinically vulnerable to shield without food

The Government’s food box scheme was supposed to be a lifeline for the clinically vulnerable. They were told to stay inside and often could not get deliveries from supermarkets. But our research suggests the scheme was used to palm off on the vulnerable unwanted, and sometimes unsuitable, supplies from elsewhere in the food chain. And that the Government’s preferred contractors, chosen without a tender process, may have reaped substantial profits…

In March, when the pandemic hit the UK, the Government told 1.5 million clinically vulnerable people to “shield” and stay indoors for at least 12 weeks to avoid contracting Covid-19 and adding to overwhelmed hospitals. These people could not go shopping for food and in many cases could not access online deliveries. So between 27 March and 31 July in England the Government contracted to provide them with food packages. 

Government, however, awarded the contract – worth £208million – without tender to Bidfood and Brakes. A subsequent FOI request has revealed that 4,724,611 boxes were distributed in England under the scheme, so Government paid £44 per box – almost double the normal retail value – a 69% mark-up on the £26 retail price of a supermarket delivering a similar box. 

Despite the eye-watering cost, serious concerns have been raised by food poverty charities about the barely edible contents, including:

  1. That the contents of the boxes did not meet a normal adult’s weekly nutritional needs and failed to consider the requirements of those with serious medical conditions, including cancer, who may require additional nutrition. 
  2. The boxes were standardised and failed to meet the needs of religious groups. For example, vulnerable Muslim families were sent pork sausages and bacon.
  3. The quality of the food supplied was inadequate and provided substandard nutritional content. One mother called Lorraine Smith, shielding in Kent, revealed in July she had received “rotten fruit and veg” in her parcels every week

We consider these failings may amount to a breach by the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs of its legal obligations, in particular the human right to food. We have written to Government asking it to provide us with the nutritional assessment it carried out of the boxes, the table of agreed contents of the boxes, to clarify what steps were taken to ensure religious groups could observe their dietary rules under Article 9 of the ECHR and to explain how the prices were set. 

Government is due to respond by 8th January 2021. If the answers are not satisfactory, we are likely to launch formal legal action.

Good Law Project has instructed Herbert Smith Freehills and Victoria Wakefield QC to act in this case.


It is only with your support that we can continue to hold Government to account. If you would like to make a donation, or join our mailing list, you can do so here.