Last week, the Labour MP Darren Jones needed antibiotics for a sick child. It took him and his wife eight attempts in two cities, he reported on Twitter, to find a chemist that could fill the prescription.
Class WhatsApp groups, Mumsnet threads and school-run conversations have been filling up over the past few days with stories like these, thanks to an increase in strep A infections – a common bug that usually just causes a sore throat but can in rare cases be fatal for children – leading to parental panic and GPs writing more prescriptions to be on the safe side. The health secretary, Steve Barclay, insists there are more than enough drugs for everyone, but right now they don’t seem to be reaching the high street fast enough, with parents reporting dashing from pharmacist to pharmacist trying to get a prescription filled.
Meanwhile, shortages of HRT medication are being reported again, after a drought last year that saw menopausal women furtively sharing stocks with friends or even trying to buy on the black market. And if it’s not drugs, it’s something else. Over the past few years a combination of Brexit, the pandemic, the wedging of a giant ship in the Suez canal that caused temporary havoc to global shipping routes, and more recently a bird-flu outbreak affecting poultry farmers, have led to temporary panics over the availability of everything from loo roll to iPhones, fresh fruit to eggs.
Minette Batters, the president of the National Farmers’ Union, warned last week that Britain could be “sleepwalking” into a food supply crisis, with pending problems for everything from pig production to growing tomatoes, cucumbers and pears. The next shortage on the horizon may be electricity, with some smart-meter customers being incentivised to curb peak-time usage to help us through a spell of cold, dry weather.
Britain is used to being a country where those with the money to pay for it could generally have what they wanted, when they wanted it: a place of just-in-time supply chains and bursting shelves, doorstep delivery and cheap credit, convenience and choice. But now we’re having to adjust to more of a scarcity mindset, accepting that niggling absences and even occasionally rationing may be a fact of life. By global or by historical standards western lives are still obviously luxurious. But having got used to a life of convenience, the idea that things may not always necessarily be available when we need them creates a steady throb of anxiety below the surface.
People used to laugh at “preppers”, those paranoid survivalists who stockpiled tinned food and battery-operated torches ready for a vaguely imagined apocalypse. But it stopped feeling so funny when one of the earliest temporary pandemic shortages involved a run on freezers in which to hoard food, and now we’re all sheepishly stocking up on candles and solar-powered chargers in case of January power cuts.
Meanwhile, prepping itself has had a makeover thanks to a rash of Instagram “homesteading” influencers, young women living on ranches in the American midwest who post endless reels of themselves canning peaches, growing squashes and raising chickens like something out of a Laura Ingalls Wilder book. What they’re pitching is a romantic vision of self-sufficiency that hasn’t been this popular since the equally unpredictable 1970s, the last time the homespun “good life” was heavily in vogue, where security means having what looks like a lifetime’s supply of tinned beans in the cellar just in case. Their popularity is, I suspect, down to the fact that they’re oddly soothing to watch, and right now it’s soothing we need.
For scarcity tends to breed anxiety about what may be around the corner, and sometimes a culture of every man for himself. There was no national shortage of petrol in the autumn of 2021, either, but the fear that there might be soon – thanks to a shortage of tanker drivers – scared people into filling up en masse just in case, thus temporarily creating precisely the shortage we’d each been trying individually to avoid. As ministers quickly discovered, once that kind of doom loop sets in, it’s very hard to stop; telling people not to panic just alerts them to the fact that other people must be panicking, and if you think something vital is about to run out then you’ll be, if anything, inclined to grab it before someone else does.
But we’re going to have to learn to adapt somehow, because shortages and interruptions and unexpected absences are almost certainly here to stay. Shifting patterns of global trade, the climate crisis affecting food production, and ongoing disruption to manufacturing, particularly in China – which faces the prospect of a huge Covid “exit wave” as it abandons restrictions in the face of the Omicron variant – are all likely to have knock-on effects. The age of inconvenience, in short, is with us for a while yet.
Gaby Hinsliff is a Guardian columnist