Fears over shortages as supermarkets hit by ‘pingdemic’

empty shelves

Supermarkets apologised for empty shelves in stores yesterday amid warnings that the “pingdemic” was putting a strain on supply chains.

Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Waitrose all said they were facing problems, blaming factors including a growing number of staff and delivery drivers being forced to isolate after coming into contact with someone with Covid-19.

Andrew Opie, director of food and sustainability at the British Retail Consortium, which represents supermarkets, said: “The ongoing ‘pingdemic’ is putting increasing pressure on retailers’ ability to maintain opening hours and keep shelves stocked. Government needs to act fast.”

Ministers confirmed yesterday that supermarket workers were unlikely to be granted an exemption from isolating if they came into contact with someone who had the coronavirus. Downing Street said that a “very small” number of people in critical sectors such as energy and telecommunications would be allowed to take daily tests instead of isolating.

Up to a million people have been instructed to isolate including about 500,000 who have been pinged by the NHS Covid-19 app.

Pictures on social media showed empty shelves in certain supermarkets. Shoppers reported shortages of meat, bread, fruit and vegetables as well as lavatory paper.

Yesterday Waitrose put up notices in some of its stores apologising for the “limited choice” because of “nationwide supply issues”. Tesco told customers it was “working hard to resolve” issues with its supply chain. A spokeswoman for Sainsbury’s acknowledged that there was “patchy availability in some stores of some products”.

Iceland confirmed that in the next few days it would begin drafting in a further 2,000 people to fill temporary roles across its shops. The retailer has been forced to reduce opening hours this week because of staff absences.

Nick Allen, chief executive of the British Meats Processors Association, said that “something is going to crack” if workers at food production plants continue to have to isolate.

“If they lose too many in the plants then they will have to close and shut down lines. A lot of them are saying they’ve never experienced anything like this. This is the worst we have experienced during the whole pandemic.”

Supermarkets said it was a “perfect storm”. The “pingdemic” is causing growing numbers of depot staff, shop assistants, delivery drivers and food production workers to isolate, but retailers were already facing a shortage of HGV drivers. The extreme hot weather has also caused huge demand for certain items, causing issues with restocking supplies. German flooding leading to some re-routing of European deliveries is also contributing.

Yesterday Sir Keir Starmer became the latest politician to self-isolate. The Labour leader has gone into isolation after one of his children tested positive for the coronavirus. Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak, the chancellor, are also isolating after Sajid Javid, the health secretary, contracted the coronavirus.

Dan Rosenfield, the prime minister’s chief of staff, and Ed Argar, a health minister, are also isolating.

Starmer was told he needed to isolate an hour after accusing Johnson of presiding over a “summer of chaos” and mocking him for being in quarantine on “freedom day” on Monday.

The prime minister, appearing via videolink from Chequers, apologised to those being pinged for the inconvenience but he is resisting calls to reduce the sensitivity of the app that detects contacts. The government is expected to replace quarantine with daily testing for those who have been vaccinated from August 16.

The prime minister said: “I apologise to everybody in business up and down the land in all kinds of services, public sector or otherwise, who are experiencing inconvenience.”

The disruption has led to a reduction in train services. Yesterday, it emerged that two major networks in the southeast — Southern and Thameslink — would operate a reduced timetable from next week. Lorry driver shortages are also affecting fuel supplies at some of BP’s petrol stations.

Engaged couples are among those affected by the requirement to isolate. No 10 said they should cancel their wedding ceremonies if they are pinged by the NHS Covid app on the day of their marriage.

Boris Johnson urged brides and grooms to self-isolate if contacted by the app, after days of conflicting advice from ministers.

Earlier in the week, two ministers, Paul Scully and Lord Grimstone, had emphasised that there was no legal obligation to self-isolate if alerted by the app.

Yesterday, in a further sign of government backing for the app, Victoria Atkins, a Home Office minister, said brides and grooms should self-isolate rather than go ahead with their ceremonies if contacted on their wedding day.

“Oh gosh, the guidance is ‘please, you must stay at home’,” she told LBC Radio. “That is a terribly, terribly difficult scenario.”

Asked whether Atkins had been correct to tell couples to postpone their nuptials if pinged, the prime minister’s official spokesman conceded that cancelling a wedding would be a “difficult situation” but said it was important that people complied with the guidance on self-isolation.

The spokesman said: “The app is carrying out an important function. We know that one in three people contacted either by Test and Trace or by the app develops coronavirus symptoms. So that demonstrates the importance of people isolating when asked to do so.”

The government is expected to publish the list of sectors that will be exempt from quarantine shortly.

The prime minister’s official spokesman said: “The prime minister has said from the start this will be a very small number of people. We appreciate there will be businesses that want to have those exemptions. But again we need to strike the balance between protecting public health during a global pandemic and keeping vital services running.”