Shops struggle to avoid empty shelves as staff isolate amid Covid ‘pingdemic’

Some shops are struggling to keep shelves stocked amid the 'pingdemic'. Credit: PA

Shops are struggling to keep shelves stocked while others may be forced to close amid staff shortages caused by the Covid-19 “pingdemic”, industry bosses have warned.

Shoppers have already taken to social media to highlight empty shelves in supermarkets across the country.

Some shops may be forced to close because of the number of staff being told to self-isolate by the NHS Covid app the British Retail Consortium (BRC) warned as it urged the government to change self-isolation guidance for workers in order to address the issue that is compounded by Brexit-related staff shortages.

Food supply chains are also “starting to fail” because of workers isolating over coronavirus contacts while a mounting lorry driver shortage is putting increased pressure on the country’s grocery supply chain.

Almost 620,000 have been 'pinged' by the NHS Covid-19 app in England and Wales - the highest weekly figure ever recorded.The rules surrounding self-isolation following contact with someone who is Covid-positive are not due to change until August 16.

Iceland CEO Richard Walker urged the government to include retail workers and delivery drivers on its isolation exempt list, due out on Thursday.

"We need key worker exception for retail workers and HGV drivers " - Iceland CEO Richard Walker says retailers are "struggling to function" as he calls for government clarity on self-isolation rules

He told ITV News the company had been forced to hire 2,000 extra staff temporarily to cover the increase in shortfall. Currently, 1,000 of Iceland's 30,000 staff are people are isolating at home after being pinged - double the company's normal rate of absenteeism. "I'm afraid to say we know no more that what we read in the papers," Mr Walker said. "I would implore the government to act as quickly as possible. the government says it wants to make sure critical services can function. Well, Iceland is a critical service, and we're struggling to function at the moment. "That's why we need clarity and we need key worker exception for retail workers and HGV drivers around the self-isolation rules so we can get on with our critical job of feeding the nations."

Andrew Opie, director of food & sustainability at the BRC, said staff in stores and suppliers should be allowed to work even if they get an alert to self-isolate.

Empty shelves in a Co-op store Credit: @HapG86/PA

“The ongoing ‘pingdemic’ is putting increasing pressure on retailers’ ability to maintain opening hours and keep shelves stocked,” he said.

“Government needs to act fast.

"Retail workers and suppliers, who have played a vital role throughout this pandemic, should be allowed to work provided they are double-vaccinated or can show a negative Covid test, to ensure there is no disruption to the public’s ability to get food and other goods."

British Meat Processors Association chief executive Nick Allen also criticised “confusing messages” from the government as he said ministers have not clarified who is applicable.

Boris Johnson apologised to businesses for the “inconvenience” on Wednesday, but told them to stick with isolation rules after confusion was sown by his own ministers.

Mr Allen said that shortage of skills and workers for permanent positions is reaching a “critically high level”, with vacancies already high prior to increased staff isolations.

“We’ve heard reports of plants having between 10% and 16% vacancies even before absenteeism due to Covid is factored-in.

“On top of the underlying worker shortage, we’re also hearing from some members that between 5% and 10% of their workforce have been ‘pinged’ by the app and asked to self-isolate."

He urged the government bring in work permits for Europeans to work in the industry to immediately plug the gap.

Chief executive of the BRC Helen Dickinson said some areas of the country were harder-hit than others and business owners were getting increasingly anxious about how they will cope.She said August 16 "feels a long time away" and warned, amid rising cases, some shops may need to close.

“There will be many smaller businesses where if they only have one or two staff and they need to self-isolate, then that’s them needing to close their doors completely," Ms Dickson said.“What is the most important thing is that people don’t panic because there’s no need to panic, because there’s plenty of food in the country.”

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Nigel Upson, who owns Soanes Poultry, a family-run processing plant in East Yorkshire, said his workforce on Wednesday was down by 20%. He and many across the poultry industry have had to cut production by as much as 10%.

Mr Upson said none of his workers had been “pinged” but four were self-isolating after testing positive. The rest of the shortfall in numbers was due to long-term job vacancies.

“It’s a very difficult period. Things like the ‘pingdemic’ hasn’t helped but the biggest problem is that there are just simply not enough people out there to fill these roles.

“We relied heavily on migrant workers but since Brexit and the pandemic an awful lot of them have gone home. The problem is there’s no one to replace them.

“There is very low unemployment in this area and we’re far away from more populated areas which makes it difficult to recruit from. We’ve even tried putting minibuses on but that’s not been doable with social distancing."