From COVID-19 quarantine to Brexit stockpiling: the British ‘preppers’ who saw trouble coming

Often stereotyped as fringe groups, the UK’s prepping community found a grim vindication in the year of COVID-19 – and the current fear of supply chaos post-Brexit.

By Tom Ward
Published 15 Dec 2020, 17:52 GMT, Updated 16 Dec 2020, 15:36 GMT
2020 has seen the double threat of COVID-19 and a no-deal Brexit disrupting supply chains. The government are ...

2020 has seen the double threat of COVID-19 and a no-deal Brexit disrupting supply chains. The government are advising people not to stockpile food – but a certain kind of citizen has been quietly slowly it for months. And for most, 'prepping' isn't extreme: it's simply a self-reliant mindset. 

Photograph by IHX / Alamy

Jo Elgarf had been expecting things to go wrong for a long time. With building uncertainty around Brexit, at some point in the near future she knew the UK’s supply chain could be compromised. Vitally, this meant her daughter’s epilepsy medication, sourced from Europe, might not be able to get into the country. Just a day without medication could prove fatal to her daughter. So when the UK entered the first COVID-19 lockdown on 16th March, Elgarf was understandably distressed.

For as long as she can remember Elgarf, who lives in South West London, has made it her mission to study the supply chain. With a degree in European studies and experience in the food manufacturing sector, she understands where our island nation can be fragile – particularly when the implications of a no deal Brexit loom large. Or, as turned out to be the case, a global pandemic.

(Read all of National Geographic's coverage of the coronavirus pandemic.)

Her fears led her to reach out to a group of like-minded people, all of whom had voted ‘Remain’ in the UK’s Brexit referendum. The group established a Facebook Group in 2017, encouraging members to supplement their weekly shop. It is the antithesis to panic buying: an extra multipack of baked beans here, another tin of sweetcorn there, with the aim of building up an emergency larder, a practice Elgarf says most people have fallen out of in a world of next day deliveries and Uber Eats. This, in essence, is prepping.

“We’re the most boring, mainstream, slightly W.I.-like group,” Elgarf explains over Zoom from her garden. Elgarf does not own a bunker. Nor is she equipped with a HAM radio, or an AK-47. In essence, she is just a normal middle-class mother with a greater appreciation than most of what might go wrong.

Despite her preparedness, coronavirus – Elgarf admits – came as a surprise. Her fears about what could go amiss, she says, had always been more “practical”. A fuel strike maybe, or extreme weather conditions. Perhaps one day we’d wake up under three feet of snow. “A virus never really crossed my mind,” she says. “But anything can happen. We’re very fragile. There are definitely no bunkers involved. But we’ve probably got a lot of washing up liquid. And during COVID lockdown, what do you really need?”

Jo Elgarf's larder cupboard, pictured in 2019 whilst preparing for Brexit. Her prepping turned out to be an asset during COVID-19 – meanwhile, uncertainty over Brexit continues. 

Photograph by REUTERS / Alamy

“None of this is radical... But we were right. I hate to say that, but the advice we gave in the Facebook group was right, and it helped an awful lot of people.”

Jo Elgarf

At the end of February, when the nation began flooding to the supermarkets, Elgarf was sitting comfortably at home. Over the past few years she had slowly built up stores to feed her family for six weeks. She’d had flour and yeast standing by in the cupboard since September. And, in the end, her GP was able to provide her daughter’s epilepsy medication from their own stockpiles.

“None of this is radical,” Elgarf says, looking back. “But we were right. I hate to say that, but the advice we gave in the Facebook group was right, and it helped an awful lot of people.”

Practical, not paranoid  

Picture a ‘prepper’ or ‘survivalist’ and the image that comes to mind is likely that of a middle-aged, probably American, male clad in camouflage, assault rifle in hand as he directs his family towards the fortified trailer-cum-mobile fortress that is to be their home for the foreseeable future.

Tune in to the popular series Doomsday Preppers and you’ll find this stereotype confirmed in abundance. Over four seasons totalling 54 episodes, the series showcases such forward thinking citizens doing everything in their power to prepare for their disaster of choice, be that electromagnetic pulses, floods, economic collapse and more. The list of possible doomsday scenarios goes on and on. But one thing is for certain; when the world ends, there will be bunkers.

Stockpiling medication isn't always possible – or advisable – but it's a situation those dependent on certain drugs are being forced to consider. The coronavirus pandemic has, in the words of one prepper, given people a ‘wake-up call’. 

Photograph by Radharc Images / Alamy

In the UK, things are a little different. While preppers like Elgarf exist (at the time of writing another Facebook group, UK Preppers and Survivalists, has over 11.6K members), there tends to be less of an emphasis on weaponry and bulletproof vehicles. As a nation we don’t have the weapons culture, or the vast tracts of empty wilderness to escape into. Despite this, we are still interested in the end of the world. Could this be a hangover from Cold War nuclear paranoia, perhaps?

“I don’t know,”says Dr Sarita Robinson, deputy head of the University of Central Lancashire’s school of psychology, and herself a dyed-in-the-wool prepper. “I’m 45 years-old and my childhood was full of young adult fiction that was total dystopia, like Z for Zachariah. Why were they children’s stories? It was unrelenting misery! I do think it feeds into the psyche a little bit. I think we’re just fascinated by what could go wrong.”

Robinson has been fascinated with pandemics since her years as a psychology undergraduate when a module examining the psychological aspects of disasters prompted her to sign up for a PHD in disaster psychology. In 1999, as part of her research, she was invited to a training course on pandemics at Lancashire Hospital.

(Read all of National Geographic’s coverage of the coronavirus pandemic.)

“It was the first time I’d heard about Spanish Flu,” she says. “I had thought pandemics were a thing of the past, but you start thinking about it and AIDS was a pandemic. SARS, MERS, Zika, H1N1 [Swine Flu] were all pandemics. It just brought to my awareness that this was something the NHS was prepping for, and something that the infection control people were very much aware of.”

“Lots of people don’t write a will. They think that by writing a will they’re making themselves more likely to die. Of course it doesn’t – you’re just preparing if that happens.”

Dr Sarita Robinson

Alongside her lecturing schedule, Robinson now investigates why some people die in disasters and other people don’t.

“I’m interested in how physiology, biology and psychology cooperate to mean some people are survivors and some people are victims,” she explains. “One of the main ways people cope when they’re told about something like living in an earthquake zone, is to go into denial and say ‘Hey, that’s never going to happen in my lifetime.’ Somehow they think that by planning for it they’re making it more likely to happen. Which is why lots of people don’t write a will. They think that by writing a will they’re making themselves more likely to die. Of course it doesn’t – you’re just preparing if that happens.”

For Robinson, prepping is about asking what you’re most likely to need in any given situation. The predominant risk in your kitchen, she explains, is fire. Buy a small fire extinguisher and a fire blanket, put them in a kitchen cupboard or under the sink, and you’re prepared.

“It’s all really low level but it’s surprising what a huge difference it makes,”she says. “About ten years ago my husband was driving back from work and got stuck on the motorway in the snow. Luckily, in the boot there was a blanket and some food, so he was just a little bit better prepared than everyone else freezing in the cars around him.”

London, March 2020: During the first lockdown in the UK in spring, many supermarkets suffered a shortage of supplies – such as these tried and tinned stock shelves – due to panic buying. Many fear a similar outcome if Brexit talks fail to yield an agreement on smooth import of goods. 

Photograph by Guy Bell / Alamy

Ironically, Robinson admits to becoming aware of the severity of the coronavirus threat “quite late”. Out of the country at a conference in January, she didn’t have time to keep track of the news. When her husband mentioned that ‘This thing in Wuhan is going a bit wrong’, Robinson thought that while it was likely coronavirus would reach the UK, as previous recent pandemics had, we’d mostly be unaffected.

But, she says, she could see the writing on the wall from late February and in early March she invited her sons back from university and, like the rest of the country, battened down the hatches. 

“As I was leaving work just before lockdown my boss leaned over and said ‘We used to laugh at you, we’re not laughing now!’,” Robinson says.

Her food supplies meant Robinson and her family weren’t “adding to the misery”of people struggling to get hold of supplies in the supermarkets. But being hungry wasn’t all she’d prepared for; prior to lockdown her husband had had a temporary filling put in. During lockdown, when the filling fell out, there was no way to get a dental appointment.

“Luckily we had these things called Toofy Pegs,” Robinsons laughs. “It’s dental cement you can use in an emergency. It wasn't very dramatic, but when you prep, you avoid drama. My prepping doesn’t interfere with my life at all. You don’t want to get to the point where you’re building a nuclear bunker in your garden because the apocalypse might be coming…”

Stereotypes and stockpiles

The idea that having a few extra tins of food in the house might come in handy is commonplace amongst preppers. But, sometimes, just how much they have squirrelled away can be a closely guarded secret. One prepper contacted for this article declined to display the contents of his cupboards because it would make him a target for ‘zombies’ (vernacular for non-preppers) when the SHTF (or, when a certain Something Hits The Fan).

Sixty year-old Michael Sanderson, a former paramedic and military man who now works in private security, was more open. Also known as ‘The British Prepper’and, via his YouTube channel, ‘The Armoured Cockroach’, Sanderson has always had an emphasis on self-reliance, inspired by his parents who as part of the generation that lived through WW2 were accustomed to growing her own food, and food rationing.

Unlike Elgarf and Robinson, he has firsthand experience of just what the ‘zombies’ can do.

Sanderson claims that after he appeared on a TV show to discuss prepping, he was targeted by local criminals who came to his house and set his cars on fire, then returned ten days later to burn the replacement hire car as well.

“People saw me on TV and thought they’d teach me a lesson,”he says. “Well, they did teach me a lesson. I had to relocate my entire family on the 21st of December. The kids were six and four, we had the Christmas tree up, all the presents…It’s real.” 

These days Sanderson accepts his post through a PO box and has his vehicles registered to a limited company instead of his home address. Perhaps as a result of his experiences, in conversation violence is often a feature of Sanderson's accounts.

He talks about how society might be left without the rule of law after 72 hours without power. He points to those who defended their businesses against looters during the 2011 Tottenham riots, and expounds on how he would defend his own family from intruders should his be the only house in the street left with electricity or food. As an example he explains how victims of Hurricane Katrina were left without food, power or supplies for days.

Anxiety over the basics needed for hygienic living – toilet paper, as well as other items such as hand sanitiser, gloves and anti-bacterial wipes – resulted in panic buying, against the government's recommendations, early in the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Photograph by Evelien DOosje / Alamy

This outlook can perhaps be explained by a 40-year career on the front lines. “I’ve worked as a paramedic and in the military,” he says. “I’ve seen things. Human beings set on fire, robberies and violence.” Despite this, Sanderson’s fears are very much grounded in reality.

“The biggest threat you’re going to face in the UK is long-term unemployment,” he says, pointing to chains such as Woolworths, BHS and Debenhams that have shut down or closed stores in recent memory –not to mention the 8% of the workforce the Bank of England predicts will be out of a job following the pandemic.

“If you have a couple of days of food in the house and you lose your job, you’re instantly in trouble,” he explains. “In that scenario, you’ll probably have to take the first job that comes along, and it’s probably going to be 12-hour days or nights on minimum wage. The trouble is that when you’re in a bad job you don’t have time to find a good one. But if you’ve got food in the house it might buy you three weeks to go and find a good job.”

“Coronavirus was a wake-up call. People have more food in the house than they ever had before... it's a step towards becoming more self reliant.”

Michael Sanderson

Sanderson is quick to dispel the notion of preppers as overly – or clinically – obsessive, an accusation he says is often levelled at him in his media work. He says that, given the proportion of society suffering with psychological illness at any one time, “of course you can find people struggling with their mental health who identify as preppers. You can put them in front of a camera and they’ll do anything you want them to; barricade the windows, show you their guns.”

As for his own preparations, Sanderson does have a ‘bug out’ location with a caravan in Wales. But it’s also where he takes his family on holiday. He has a barbecue he can use should the power fail – or equally, if it happens to be nice out one evening and he fancies cooking al fresco. He also stores 90 gallons of rainwater and keeps a solar lantern on every windowsill, just in case.

“Personally, I’ve never prepared for anything that hasn’t actually happened,” he says. “If a meteor comes from outer space, I’m done like everyone else. I’m not one of these people that wants to live in a compound. America is the bunker capital of the world – but a lot of States have brutal hurricane season. If you’re living in Walthamstow and you have a bunker, you’re probably a little off.”

Prepping isn’t just about stockpiling tins of tuna, though. Sanderson and Robinson have both supplemented their preparations through learning bushcraft skills.

Robinson regularly attends survival courses, gives an annual talk at the Bushcraft Show, and teaches outdoor skills to Scouts and Guides groups. The key thing learning outdoor skills develops, Robinson says, is confidence; you practice, so that when the S does HTF, so to speak, you’ll be able to carry out the skill calmly.

'Prepping' stereotypes range from militaristic survivalists to citizens simply a little-more practically-minded than others – and those for whom supplies such as medicines are necessary for daily life. 

Photograph by Radharc Images / Alamy

“Everyone talks about the practical side of prepping,” she says. “You learn how to purify water and start a fire; yeah, that’s important, but my point of view is that it’s the mental prep that’s most important. If you’re too anxious or depressed to put those skills into practice, any practical skill you’ve developed is useless.”

Nor is studying bushcraft about fleeing for the moors at the first sign of trouble. “When you see these people in the woods in camouflage, they’re just practicing being self-reliant,” adds Sanderson. “They’re learning how to cook a meal for their family without gas and electricity. If anything happens, these people aren’t going anywhere, they’re going home.”

2020's lessons

As for what coronavirus has taught them, Elgarf, Robinson and Sanderson each have a slightly different takeaway.

Elgarf ended up catching coronavirus from her other daughter and was laid up for 10 weeks. Her stockpiles kept them going during this time, as did the food deliveries her family were entitled to because of her at-risk daughter. The problem of how her daughter gets her medicine next time is still to be solved.

“I’m never going to be able to stockpile medicines,” she says. “It’s one of the things I have to hope the government will prioritise.”

Sanderson believes that being locked down has encouraged more people to take responsibility for their own wellbeing.

“Coronavirus was a wake-up call,” he says. “People have more food in the house than they ever had before. People have paracetamol, cough medicine. They have probably got an eye on keeping the car topped up. It’s a step towards being more self-reliant.”

Robinson knows that when it comes to pandemics, it can always get worse. And, while you can put supplies aside, even a thousand extra tins of beans won’t save you forever.

“My prepping will do me for six weeks,” she says. “If things haven’t resolved themselves by then, I’m probably stuffed. Within six weeks you’d hope things would have returned to some sort of normality, which they did in the case of [the first COVID lockdown]. I’m not prepared to sacrifice my life and comfort for something that is probably quite an unrealistic event.”

Tom Ward is a freelance journalist based in Brighton.

This article was updated with a correction to Sarita Robinson's job title.

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