Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

A long line of shoppers queue to buy groceries at a supermarket in Chingford, London, on March 9, 2020.Ashraf Karim Eddin/Reuters

It was on Thursday that the coronavirus finally caused Britain’s famously stiff upper lip to quiver.

You initially had to go into a grocery store to see it. As someone who works from home, I often take a midday break to buy things for dinner. Usually it’s just me and a few retirees listening to gentle Muzak as we wander the aisles.

Not today. Not when Italy is in lockdown, Ireland is closing schools and the United States is barring travellers from Europe, though not yet the United Kingdom. Everyone in the U.K. is wondering how long it will be before Prime Minister Boris Johnson decides that it is time for Britain to start shutting things down too.

Britain has thus far tried to maintain a business-as-usual pose, even as the number of confirmed cases of the new coronavirus rose Wednesday to 460, including 104 in London. Ten deaths have been reported.

Mr. Johnson is expected to announce Thursday that the government is moving from the “contain” to the “delay” phase of its planned response – a step that in the short or medium term could include the closure of schools and the cancellation of some large public gatherings, as well as urging people to work from home if possible.

A trip to the grocery store made it clear that many in London are expecting the country to soon head in a much more closed direction. The first thing I noticed when I popped in a store near London’s Clapham Junction train station – intending only to buy a few things for salad – was the absence of the usual music. Instead of wordless Ed Sheeran tunes, the soundtrack was provided by the squeaking wheels of grocery carts moving rapidly through the aisles.

The store was crowded right from the fruit and vegetables section at the front, to the deserted toilet paper racks in the back. As I paused to consider whether I needed one or two avocados, a woman pushing a stroller, and rushing to get somewhere deeper inside the store, cut between me and the produce, the wheels nudging the end of my shoes. I decided then and there to grab the second avocado.

My mind flashed forward to a possible future where the thing that bothered me most – in my second week of theoretical quarantine – was the decision to leave that second avocado behind. In the next aisle, I could hear a woman and a member of the staff discussing, almost in a whisper, how long it would be before the store received more toilet paper.

Things got more hectic further into the store. As everywhere else, antibacterial hand gel disappeared from British shelves several weeks ago. Toilet paper started to get scarce earlier this week, after videos emerged online of shoppers in Australia fighting over the last rolls, as though having enough TP was the only way to immunize yourself from COVID-19.

Things vanish more quietly in England, in the land of keeping calm and carrying on. The English walk by the place where the hand gel should be, looking everywhere but the empty shelf. I could have sworn this is where they kept the cereal. I certainly was not looking for hand gel. Were you?

Toilet paper disappeared on Monday, and by Wednesday there was such a run on other tissues (the stuff Canadians refer to as Kleenex), that the Clapham Junction store had put its unsold supply of Christmas-decorated tissues back on display. Why sing “Happy Birthday” as you wash your hands when “We Wish You A Merry Christmas” will do the trick?

On Thursday, it was rice, pasta and other non-perishable goods that were becoming scarce. An employee moved among the aisles, appending green “temporarily unavailable” stickers to shelves that used to hold cans of peas, jars of tomato sauce or bags of basmati rice. A last can of cut green beans stared out from one rack, daring shoppers to decide they would not need it in the days ahead.

My wife texted to ask whether the store had any baking powder (among other things), and it was my turn to ask a staff member for help. A tall young man in a green apron looked relieved to be asked for something the store still had in stock.

“Busy day?” I asked him rhetorically as I tried to find room for the baking powder in a basket bulging with far more than salad. “I’m going straight to the pub after this,” he replied.

In other words, he would be keeping calm and carrying on. Or at least trying to keep up the appearance of doing so.

But behind him, a woman was filling her cart with all the flour she could grab.

Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.

Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

Follow the author of this article:

Follow topics related to this article:

Check Following for new articles

Interact with The Globe