Empty shelves in a Tesco store in Kent last week as shoppers stockpile basic consumer goods for fears of a potential quarantine. Photo: AFP / Robin Pope / NurPhoto

Britain’s biggest retailer Tesco said Tuesday that it recruited over 45,000 staff in the past two weeks as the coronavirus outbreak sparked a stockpiling surge while many supermarket workers fell ill.

In an earnings update, Tesco said costs were forecast to increase by between £650 million and £925 million ($787 million and $1.12 billion) on “significant cost increases in payroll, distribution and store expenses.”

Chief executive Dave Lewis said “COVID-19 has shown how critical the food supply chain is to the UK” but he noted that “initial panic buying has subsided and service levels are returning to normal.”  

Tesco said that “more than 45,000 new colleagues” joined since March 20, including drivers meeting soaring demand for home deliveries.

“In the first few weeks of the crisis, significant panic buying … cleared the supply chain of certain items,” it said.  

“The size and nature of our workforce means we have experienced a significant absence of colleagues,” it added.