Post COVID-19: How will affordability challenge health priorities?

Date : 25 September 2020

Natasha Maynard

Nutrition & Scientific Affairs Manager

COVID-19 has driven huge changes in shopper behaviour and continues to present challenges for those struggling to afford or access a healthy balanced diet.

This article looks at the current landscape and explores how shoppers will balance health priorities with savvy shopping as they contend with the economic impact of the pandemic.


The current landscape

As the UK officially entered a recession, COVID-19 has left many feeling worse off financially and some seeking greater support

It’s widely recognised that health inequalities exist between the rich and poor in society and diet-related ill health affects those in lower income groups disproportionately.

Whilst unhealthy diets and their adverse consequences are not limited to those in the lowest income groups, evidence shows these groups are affected disproportionately.

  • 68% of adults are overweight or obese in the poorest quintile compared with 58% in the richest (Health Survey for England, 2017)
  • 17% of the poorest decile consume the recommendations for fruit and vegetables compared with 26% in the general population (Source: Food Foundation in Hungry for Change report, July ’20)

With COVID-19 leaving many worse off financially, it’s not yet clear how this will impact long-term health outcomes.

  • Young people have been the hardest hit by unemployment

New figures from the ONS suggest some 695,000 UK workers dissapeared from the payrolls of British companies since March - around the time when lockdown measures were introduced. It’s young people aged 16-24 years that were the hardest hit, seeing the biggest drop in employment compared with other age groups (Source: Office for National Statistics, Sept 2020).

As the government’s Job Retention Scheme winds down, higher levels of unemployment are predicted.

  • The pandemic has heightened the issue of food insecurity

With many facing increased financial pressures as a consequence of the pandemic, the issue of food insecurity has received greater attention in recent months.

At the peak of lockdown, we saw a raft of food companies step forward to divert surplus food to foodbanks supporting people in need. At this time, the Trussell Trust reported an 89% increase in emergency food parcels given to people across the UK (April ‘20 vs. April ‘19).

Those living in food insecurity during COVID-19 talk of experiences like skipping meals and compromising on food safety, according to research commissioned by the FSA. Many also expressed concerns about reduced nutritional balance and the impact that might have on their health.

To support those in need, lots of food companies continue to increase their support and partner with other organisations to make a difference. This comes at a time when the government is facing increased political pressure, from industry and consumers alike, to address food poverty.

Following a successful campaign by footballer Marcus Rashford, the government introduced a ‘COVID Summer Food Fund’ to help feed children over the summer holidays.

Rashford has since joined forces with major food companies to establish the Child Food Poverty Task Force which endorses three policy recommendations of the recently published Part One of the National Food Strategy. This includes the expansion of free school meals, expanding holiday provision and increasing the value of the healthy start vouchers.

Image source: The Big Issue

Shoppers use savvy shopping tactics to reduce food bills as around a third expect to be worse off financiallly in the year ahead

  • Financial confidence remains low

Financial confidence declined significantly at the height of lockdown, though this has eased slightly in recent months.

In August, almost a third of shoppers said they expect to be worse off financially in the year ahead – down from 50% in April (Source: IGD Shopper Confidence Index, August 2020).

Shoppers cite various reasons for this, but we’re seeing fewer people worried about utility bills and fuel prices, whereas worries about job security and pay have risen sharply since before lockdown.

Worries about food prices continue to be top of mind for many.

  • Shoppers revert to savvy shopping tactics to reduce food bills

At the peak of lockdown, shoppers prioritised ‘speed’ and ‘ease’ when shopping. As lockdown measures eased, we saw shoppers begin to shop around again as the importance of ‘saving money’ rose up the shopper agenda, influencing shoppers’ choice of store.

We’re also seeing more shoppers adopting savvy shopping tactics - shopping for promotions has been the top money saving tactic used by shoppers recently. We saw shoppers use savvy shopping tactics to manage their food bills during the credit crunch and we expect to see similar tactics being used again.

Looking ahead, will affordability challenge health priorities?

  • Shopper confidence will remain fragile

We predict that shopper confidence will remain fragile as higher levels of unemployment are predicted as the Job Retention Scheme comes to an end on 31 October and shoppers contend with the impact of a deep economic downturn in 2020.

  • Savvy shopping tactics may overide health priorities

The good news is that health is now an even bigger motivator for consumers to improve their diet in the wake of COVID-19, with nearly two-thirds (63%) of people citing health as their primary driver up from 58% in 2019 (Source: IGD Appetite for Change, Sept 2020).

But we know that maintaining healthy diets can prove a challenge for some. As shoppers focus more on saving money, we can expect shoppers to increasingly shop around to find the best value, particularly online, as well as shopping for promotions. This may override other intentions, such as healthy eating – especially given that 38% of people percieve healthier sustainable alternatives to be more expensive (Source: IGD Appetite for Change, Sept 2020). Balancing affordability whilst helping shoppers meet their health aspirations will be key.

Next steps

With businesses starting to think about the short to medium and longer-term impact of COVID-19, we created six hypotheses in May, outlining how we believe the pandemic could influence health and wellness priorities in the UK.

Our latest report ‘Post COVID-19 – how are health and wellness priorities evolving?’ explores how we see these priorities evolving.

IGD’s ShopperVista provides the latest insights into British shopper attitudes and behaviours. For more information visit