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Shops face struggle to avoid empty shelves over ‘pingdemic’, industry bosses say

·4-min read

Retailers are under “increasing pressure” to keep shelves fully stocked amid staff shortages caused by the “pingdemic”, industry bosses have warned.

The British Retail Consortium (BRC) has urged the Government act to change self-isolation guidance for workers.

It comes as Britain’s mounting lorry driver shortage also puts increased pressure on the country’s grocery supply chain.

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

Empty shelves
Empty shelves in a Co-op store (@HapG86/PA)

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.

“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.

“With community cases soaring, the number of healthy retail staff having to self-isolate is rising fast, disrupting retail operations.”

Food industry bosses also warned that supply chains are “starting to fail” because of workers isolating over coronavirus contacts.

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.

Watch: Govt 'very concerned' over 'pingdemic'

It came as 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.

“There’s a real air of despondency creeping through the industry.”

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

“The things the Government could do to help us at the moment they’re not doing. And the shelves are starting to show,” Mr Allen said.

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%.

“What that means is we’ve stopped all of the jobs that are not processing chicken, for example, the processing of the hearts, liver, gizzards and feet for consumption. That’s all now going in the skip because we don’t have enough staff,” Mr Upson said.

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.

Watch: What UK government COVID-19 support is available?

“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.

“The Government just haven’t planned for this even though everyone else knew it was coming. It’s just it came quicker because of the pandemic.”

Tony Goodger, from the Association of Independent Meat Suppliers, said pressure looks set to worsen over the summer when meat demand will increase due to barbecues and many people staying in the country rather than travelling abroad on holiday.

Mr Goodger said: “Here is the rub: there could be as many as 140,000 job vacancies in the food industry by 2024.

“What the Prime Minister needs to do is to introduce a two-year Covid recovery visa which would allow workers from outside the country to come in and work in the industry. Then, in the long term, introduce programmes and training to encourage people to work in the industry.

“Right now most people in the UK don’t want to work in the food industry, or hospitality, but there’s jobs of all kinds needing a range of qualifications from none to masters degrees. The Government needs to work on changing this attitude otherwise there will be plenty of people in pubs, bars and restaurants with nothing to serve them.”

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