Jo Elgarf doesn’t look like you would imagine a prepper to look. She’s not a swivel-eyed libertarian, camouflaged and armed to the eyeballs, crawling around the woods in Montana, skinning a squirrel for breakfast and fuelling up for the apocalypse. She lives with her husband and three young children in a sleepy suburb of south-west London.
Elgarf is happy to call herself a prepper, though; she is a member – and a moderator – of one of a growing number of prepper groups on social media. Hers – an anti-Brexit Facebook group called 48% Preppers – gets between 100 and 200 requests a day to join. Everyone wants to be ready for a no-deal Brexit.
The stockpiling is not too extreme in Elgarf’s case; it just means the kitchen cupboards are stuffed full of pasta, sauces, rice, tins, milk powder and washing powder. There are a few things she wouldn’t normally get – such as tinned vegetables – which can go to a food bank if they’re not needed. Otherwise, it’s just a bit more of the usual. Elgarf reckons they have got enough to last the family from a month to six weeks.
The group is not about scaremongering, she says. Quite the opposite – it’s about calming like-minded people down, and about promoting an old-fashioned larder mentality. “Have a look in your cupboard; if you got snowed in for a month, could you cope? We’re not predicting you won’t get anything. What we’re saying is: you may walk into a shop and can’t find any rice. Have you got something at home to replace it?
“In Switzerland, they tell people to have, I think, two weeks’ stuff,” she says. People are vulnerable there, not just because they’re more likely to get snowed in, but also because they have a hard border. Elgarf’s degree was in European studies. And she worked in the food industry; she knows how just-in-time it operates. Chris Grayling’s little lorry exercise didn’t reassure her. Nor the chief executive of the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry saying that a no-deal Brexit “should be avoided at all costs”.
Because it’s not just about food for Elgarf and her family. One of her four-year-old twins, Nora, who has been sitting happily on her mum’s lap as we talk, has a rare brain condition called polymicrogyria. She has lots of prescriptions, but without two of them – Epilim and Keppra – for her epilepsy, she would have multiple seizures a day. “She can’t do without them,” says Elgarf. Both Epilim and Keppra are imported.
If she could stockpile these medicines, she would. But they are controlled, and she can only get a month’s supply at a time. “It should be all right,” she has been told by doctors and the pharmacists. But when it’s your daughter’s life that’s at stake, “it should be all right” isn’t good enough.
Many of the people who join the Facebook group have concerns about medicines, Elgarf says. There are a lot of diabetics and coeliacs among them. What they need is some reassurance. “We need to know for certain they have got a proper plan in place for anybody who depends on meds.” She has heard rumours that the most critical medicines may have to be collected from central hubs, which would be stocked on the basis of lists provided by GPs. It’s clearly something she has given thought to.
Elgarf is also clear about why she is talking to me. “So come April and there’s no Epilim in the country, I’ll say: ‘Where’s that Guardian man?’ And you guys are going to be interested because this little child you saw in January now has no meds.” Nora has fallen asleep on her mum.
And so to another unlikely prepper, and member of the same group, in Cardiff. “I don’t identify as a prepper, but I am prepping,” says Helena, who doesn’t want her surname published. “I always thought preppers were a bit batshit crazy and am quite surprised to find myself in this position.”
Helena, who has a politics degree and works for a charity, doesn’t come across as crazy. None of the people I speak to do. Informed: tick. Cautious: tick. Organised: tick. Very organised, in Helena’s case: she has – and shares with me – a spreadsheet, colour-coded according to what is fully purchased (eg tinned tomatoes and loo paper, alongside a note that the average person uses 110 rolls a year), part-purchased (eg cereal), waiting delivery (powdered coconut), or pending testing (dried falafel mix). Falafel! I’m going straight round to Helena’s. She also has booze and biscuits. Brexit party in Cardiff on Friday 29 March, everyone. And she’s got makeup! We’re going to be looking good as the good ship Britannia goes down.
Helena is not just prepping for herself. She is doing it for her dog, Charlie, too. And while she has about three months’ worth of supplies for herself, she is looking at more like a year for the dog, as she doesn’t see that pet food will be a priority. “I don’t really trust the government to look after me; I certainly don’t trust them to look after my dog,” she says. As well as dog food, there are treats and toys on the spreadsheet. Charlie is going to enjoy a hard Brexit.
Helena sees it as an insurance policy. “Unless there’s enormous panic buying, I don’t think there’s going to be nothing on the shelves at Asda,” she says. “But I do think there’s a very good chance that choice is going to be limited.”
Helena’s dad agrees. He thinks he should be doing the same, but just hasn’t got round to it yet. Her mum – who is “nearly as keen on Brexit as Nigel Farage” – has accused her of gullibility, ignorance and spreading fear. “I don’t think it’s scaremongering to protect your family, and because people are doing this earlier it means that, when we get to 29 March, there’s going to be more left for people who haven’t prepped, and the supply chains will have had the chance to catch up.”
She hopes she is being overcautious. “I don’t want to be proved right at all. I’d be super-happy if, a year from now, I’m sitting here thinking: ‘Bloody hell, I’ve still got tinned potatoes on the shelf.’ I hope that my mother is right and Brexit is a fantastic success … the land of milk and honey.”
As opposed to the land of powdered milk and … “golden syrup”, she says. Actually, there’s honey and golden syrup on the spreadsheet.
In Cambridge, Diane says she is also stockpiling, though she doesn’t want to go into too much detail. “I’m a bit cautious about being presented as an idiot who has a cupboard full of stuff,” she says. She’s OK about using her surname, though: she is Diane Coyle, OBE, FACSS, the economist, Bennett professor of public policy at the University of Cambridge, former adviser to the Treasury, vice-chair of the BBC Trust, member of the Competition Commission, winner of the Indigo prize … in short, really not an idiot.
“The point about supply chains,” she explains, “is that the things you buy in the supermarket today were on the road last night. Supermarkets now don’t have warehouses full of stuff. If we have a no deal and the delays go up even by 12 hours – although I see there’s a new report saying it is going to be much more – then things will stop being put on the shelves. They will run out. And it’s not just stuff we buy from the EU, and it’s not just fresh produce – it’s quite a lot of things.”
Coyle knows that she can’t get by without a cuppa and doesn’t want to run out of teabags or coffee because she didn’t get any in before a no-deal exit. “It’s things that matter to me, that we import, and it’s a bit of insurance.”
She did the same with cash before the financial crisis. Lending rates were going off the scale; “The message was the banks don’t trust each other with their money overnight, so why should I trust them with money overnight?” She took out some cash and stashed it away just in case; in the end she didn’t need it, but it emerged later that the cash machines were close to stopping working.
Does she really expect empty shelves this time? “I don’t know – it’s completely uncertain. There are serious people saying the chances of a no-deal exit are significant. And even if they are only 10%, and it’s 90% we’ll have a deal, why would you not have that extra bit of insurance? It’s perfectly sensible.”
Coyle worries that a lot of people don’t get the point about supply chains and the modern economy. “And, of course, it’s not just things we buy in supermarkets – it’s all the things companies use in making stuff, all of those imported components they use. It’s a just-in-time economy. This is a source of a lot of efficiency gains and improvements in productivity ever since the 1980s, and it means that people don’t hold stocks of stuff any more. So you’re very vulnerable to delays in imports getting into the country.”
Surely the government realises this? “Well, I’m sure the civil servants appreciate it, and I’m sure some of the ministers appreciate it, but I don’t think all of them do, at least not from what they’re saying in public.”
In north Cornwall, Nevine Mann believes we will leave the EU without a deal, and that’s what she is preparing for. “We’re expecting it to be pretty horrendous for at least a couple of months, hopefully settling down and becoming less horrendous over time,” says the former midwife. “Long term, we expect what’s available to be more expensive and different.”
She and her family (five in total) are as ready as anyone. “We’ve done it early and slowly, so it’s not making a major impact on what’s available for others. We’re pretty much done. I’ve got a very short list of items I want to add.”
They have supplies to last from four to six months, stored under the stairs, in the loft and the garage. Food, for them and for the cat (“The cat is fussy enough to starve herself if she doesn’t get what she wants”), and paracetamol and ibuprofen for kids and adults. And vitamin tablets in case there’s a shortage of vegetables.
Mann has also been trying to stockpile a prescription antihistamine her younger son takes for his allergy to grass pollen. “I’ve always had my prescriptions once every two months rather than monthly anyway, so what I’m doing is just ordering them early and gradually building up a supply.”
So far, they have only got a few weeks’ worth. It’s less of a worry than Nora’s Epilim and Keppra, perhaps, but concerning nonetheless: without it, he can’t go outdoors between March and October.
For the Manns, it’s not just about stockpiling food and a bit of medicine. They are probably the best prepped of the preppers I speak to. They were planning to put solar panels on the roof anyway, but with the threat of no deal they have done it sooner, and they are trying to set up a system that stores energy on a big battery. They have a 1,100-litre water collection tank in the garden. And they’re hoping not to be needing those vitamin tablets because they will have their own fresh veg. They’re no experts (“Actually, I have a bit of a reputation for killing everything,” says Mann), but they have got vegetable patches in the garden, and they’re giving it a go, trying to grow overwintering varieties from seed.
The results are mixed so far. Slugs and snails have had most of the purple sprouting broccoli, the winter lettuce and the chard, but the Manns have been more successful with broad beans, mangetout, shallots and garlic. I’m thinking the garlic may go with the snails, with a mangetout side … but maybe that’s one for further down the line.
Mann and family also have some mature fruit trees and bushes, and are trying to learn what to do with them. They’re picking the brains of greener-fingered friends, they have bought a couple of idiots’ guides, they’re hoping they may have a little extra. “We’re planning, actually, to create a few little Brexit boxes for friends and family, who we know can’t manage to prepare for themselves, so they’ve got something at least,” says Mann.
Brexit boxes! Isn’t that lovely? Who says it’s all about hatred, division and polarisation? And could this be the beginning of what may, one day, be known as Brexit spirit?
Lastly, and briefly, to Dollis Hill, a sleepy suburb of north-west London. Vicky, a nosy teacher, picks from the printer a draft of her boyfriend Sam’s article about stockpiling for Brexit. It’s all so bloody stupid, she says, and she means that it’s come to this – a wartime mentality in what’s supposed to be peacetime, not that people are stockpiling. “I’m going to do a bit,” she announces. “But where shall we put it? And we’re definitely having dried falafel mix.”