Supermarkets struggling to stock shelves as ‘pingdemic’ takes toll on staff numbers
Supermarkets are under increasing pressure to keep shelves fully stocked, retail industry leaders have warned as the growing havoc wreaked by the “pingdemic” continues to force thousands of workers to self-isolate.
With shops in some areas suffering shortages and sectors from petrol stations to the postal service impacted by absences, the government is being urged to include supermarket staff, lorry drivers and other frontline workers on a list of those exempted from self-isolation rules.
The government has announced that certain industries will be able to apply for staff exemptions, allowing critical workers who are pinged to return to work after a PCR test and undertake daily lateral flow tests, rather than self-isolating for 10 days.
But it has yet to publish a list of which sectors can take part in the scheme and there will not be a list of critical workers exempt from automatic self-isolation; instead, exemptions will be considered on a case-by-case basis.
With the numbers of those expected to be granted exemptions relatively small, bosses are concerned and frustrated that thousands of workers will continue to have to self-isolate when pinged by the NHS Covid app.
Andrew Opie, director of food at the British Retail Consortium trade body, said staff shortages could have an impact on opening hours and shelf stacking.
“The ongoing ‘pingdemic’ is putting increasing pressure on retailers’ ability to maintain opening hours and keep shelves stocked. Government needs to act fast,” said Opie.
“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.”
The supermarket, Iceland, aims to recruit 2,000 extra staff to help cover absences caused by the self-isolation “pingdemic”. The retailer said it had been forced to reduce trading hours and even shut some stores.
Richard Walker, the head of Iceland, said that a handful of outlets had been forced to close after more than 1,000 workers – around 3% of the group’s total – had been asked to self-isolate after being pinged by the app.
He said the number of people having to isolate was “growing about 50% week on week, and that was really alarming”. Walker called on the government to adjust the app or self-isolation rules urgently, before planned changes on 16 August.
“Supermarkets need to focus on feeding the nation not writing to government departments,” he said. He said that about 96% of those alerted by the NHS app who worked for Iceland did not test positive for Covid-19.
There were also reports on social media of supermarkets in some areas running out of basic supplies including milk, eggs, bread and rice.
Tesco said it had run out of bottled water in its warehouses, while the Co-op said supplies at “a large majority” of its stores had been disrupted “due to the impact of Covid/ isolation of colleagues”.
The Daily Telegraph reported that police forces across the country were being impacted. In Dorset, a third of control room staff were off work after being pinged or tested positive.
The Cleveland police and crime commissioner, Steve Turner, warned the public to expect longer response times to calls.