The Daily Telegraph
Pingdemic disrupts supermarket food supplies
Business chiefs call for isolation exemption list to include store workers and hauliers
SUPERMARKET supply chains are “starting to fail” because the “pingdemic” is sending thousands of workers into isolation, food industry leaders warned last night.
Shelves were empty of basic supplies in certain areas and some petrol stations ran out of fuel as the NHS Test and Trace app threatened to bring parts of the economy to a standstill.
MPS and industry bosses urged the Government to ease the growing crisis by adding supermarket staff, lorry drivers and other front-line workers to a list of those exempted from automatic isolation when “pinged” by the app as a contact of someone with Covid.
The Government has yet to publish guidance on which industries would benefit from any exemption scheme. A list was expected yesterday but no announcement came.
Boris Johnson apologised to affected businesses for their “inconvenience” but urged them to stick by the rules and support workers to stay at home.
The pingdemic has brought disruption as more than half a million people were told to isolate in a single week.
BP announced yesterday that several of its petrol stations had to close temporarily after running low on fuel and Cleveland’s police and crime commissioner warned people to expect longer response times to calls. Royal Mail also announced delays to deliveries in 10 parts of England after an increase in absences due to isolating staff.
Supermarket bosses said that an existing shortage of lorry drivers had been brought to near-crisis point by the numbers sent into isolation by the NHS app. Shelves were empty of bread, meat, fruit and vegetables in parts of Bristol, Cambridge and Southampton.
Tesco said it had run out of bottled water in its warehouses and the Co-op said supplies had been disrupted to “a large majority” of its stores because of “the impact of Covid/isolation of colleagues”. It added: “This is a short-term but significant impact and has affected our ability to supply stores.” Iceland announced plans to draft in 2,000 temporary employees to keep its stores open.
Nick Allen, chief executive of the British Meat Processors Association, warned the supply chain was at risk of collapse and said some of his members had lost up to 10 per cent of their workforce to isolation. “There’s an air of despondency creeping through the industry really,” he told the BBC.
“Until now, we’ve managed to keep the food supply chain running but there’s a sense we’re starting to fail on that front.”
Asked if production lines were stalling, he said: “They are. It’s happening already. We’re starting to see that at retail level and in restaurants – everyone is struggling to get things out.”
MPS and industry leaders called on the Government to include supermarket workers and lorry drivers in an exemption scheme allowing “critical” workers pinged by the app to return to work if they tested negative.
Andrew Opie, director of food and sustainability at the British Retail Consortium, called for swift Government action. “Retail workers and suppliers, who have played a vital role throughout this pandemic, should be allowed to work if 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,” he said.
Lorry drivers were already in short supply, with the haulage industry estimating a shortfall of about 60,000 caused in part by cancelled driving tests. Rod Mckenzie, of the Road Haulage Association, said the Government’s plan was “confusing” and felt like “it’s been rushed”. He said: “Where do you draw the line on lorry drivers, essential workers, the people in the supply chains? Because most of the people I know in the supply chain would say ‘hang on a sec, I’m an essential worker’.”
This week, the Government said there would be no list of critical workers and isolation exemptions would be “considered on a case-by-case basis”.
On Monday, the Prime Minister indicated that those who would benefit included “our hospitals and care homes,
‘Until now, we’ve managed to keep the food supply chain running but there’s a sense we’re starting to fail’
the supplies of food, water, electricity and medicines, the running of our trains, the protection of our borders and the defence of our realm”. This was on top of NHS staff.
On Tuesday, the Government published no guidance on which industries would benefit from exemptions, how companies could apply or what criteria would be used to judge applications. Companies were told simply to contact the relevant government department.
The list of which sectors would be covered was expected yesterday.
Sources in the Department for Business said they had been inundated with requests about the exemption scheme from companies frustrated at the impact of the spiralling self-isolation crisis on their staff numbers.
Government figures, from Mr Johnson down, have stressed repeatedly that the exemption is only designed to be used for a “very small” number of people. One well-placed Whitehall source indicated tens of thousands rather than hundreds of thousands could benefit.
It also emerged that NHS staff can refuse to return to work even if they are given an exemption from isolation.
A letter from Prof Stephen Powis, the NHS medical director, sent to NHS trusts on Monday, warned they had the “right to allow” not to “compel” staff to return to work.
Meanwhile, Downing Street said that engaged couples pinged by the NHS Covid app on the night before they were married should call off their weddings.
In the Commons, Mr Johnson – who took part in Prime Minister’s Questions from his isolation at Chequers – apologised to anyone who was also having to quarantine. He urged people to follow the rules until Aug 16 when the country shifts to “a system based on contact testing, rather than contact isolation”.
He said: “Until then, I must remind everybody that isolation is a vital tool in our defence against the disease.”