UK grocers warn of shortages amid virus ‘pingdemic’

LONDON (AFP) – British supermarkets and suppliers warned yesterday of possible food shortages due to staff self-isolating, as rising coronavirus cases threaten chaos after the government controversially eased all restrictions earlier this week.

With millions of workers and schoolkids currently forced to stay home under COVID-19 tracing rules – in what has been dubbed a “pingdemic” after the phone app used to contact, or ping, people who need to self-isolate – various industries are starting to suffer.

Newspapers showed yesterday photographs of empty supermarket shelves, as missing staff at stores as well as in supply chains hit retailer’s operations – with some even closing outlets.

“We’ve kept all of our shops open throughout the pandemic, but now we have had to close one or two shops and reduce hours in others,” managing director of frozen food retailer Iceland Richard Walker told BBC radio.

“But that could get a lot worse a lot quicker, unless the country’s system is sorted out.”

Managing Director of Policy at the Road Haulage Association (RHA) Rod McKenzie said the United Kingdom (UK) was already struggling with a shortage of lorry drivers due to Brexit and that isolation issues were now “a recipe for chaos”.

The government on Monday eased all virus curbs, including the legal requirement to wear a mask in certain settings and social distancing rules, just as new cases are surging towards levels not seen since peaks in January.

An employee stocks shelves at a Tesco supermarket in central London. PHOTO: AFP

Prime Minister Boris Johnson argues the country’s vaccination programme, which has jabbed nearly 70 per cent of adults with two doses, allows for the relaxation of measures.

But the surge in infections, averaging nearly 50,000 a day during the most recent week, has led to a dramatic increase in people told to self-isolate by tracing officials from the National Health Service (NHS).

Johnson, Finance Minister Rishi Sunak, Health Secretary Sajid Javid and opposition Labour leader Keir Starmer are all among those currently isolating after being contacted.

The prime minister is under pressure to widen the list of jobs that are exempt from the isolation rules, but has so far resisted and kept exemptions tightly restricted to key workers in critical industries.

The rules are set to change on August 16, when fully vaccinated adults can take daily tests rather than isolate.

But the delay in implementing the new regime has been criticised, with Helen Dickinson, chief executive of the British Retail Consortium, warning smaller firms could be forced to close before then.

“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,” she told the BBC.

Meanwhile, the government has been criticised for compounding the crisis after providing mixed messages on the need to stay home if contacted by the tracer teams.

While some ministers have insisted people must isolate if advised, two business ministers this week noted there is actually no legal requirement to isolate if they are pinged by the NHS app.

Only those contacted by the separately run NHS Test and Trace service must stay at home for 10 days by law.

The public already appeared increasingly sceptical of the isolation rules following the easing of restrictions, with reports many people are deleting the app or ignoring advice.

A poll on Monday reported half of Britons said they would be unlikely to self-isolate if they had a negative rapid test after coming into contact with someone with coronavirus.