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UK businesses criticise self-isolation changes for food supply chain workers

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Supermarkets and a string of businesses and associations said although the plan was welcome, it did not do enough. Photo: Justin Tallis/AFP
Supermarkets and a string of businesses and associations said although the plan was welcome, it did not do enough. Photo: Justin Tallis/AFP

A number of retail businesses have criticised new emergency measures that make food supply chain workers exempt from self-isolating.

On Thursday night the UK government implemented a plan to avoid disruption of food supplies caused by COVID-related staff shortages. Workers will now be required to take daily tests instead.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said the move would start this week, with a focus on distribution hubs, processing facilities and logistics infrastructure.

However, supermarkets and a string of businesses and associations said although the plan was welcome, it did not do enough.

“While the announcement of a process which may exempt select critical workers from self-isolation in England will be a relief to some businesses, it will leave many more still facing critical staff shortages and lost revenue as the number of people being asked to isolate remains high,” Hannah Essex, co-executive director of the British Chamber of Commerce, said.

“Nearly half of the businesses we surveyed this week have had staff either off sick with COVID or self-isolating in the past two weeks. Businesses want to play their part in stopping the spread of the virus while at the same time striving to revive their business after 16 months of disruption and closures.”

Read more: UK recovery 'on pause' as Delta variant rips through

Meanwhile, Helen Dickinson, chief executive of the British Retail Consortium (BRC) said: “It is absolutely vital that the government makes up for lost time and rolls out this new scheme as fast as possible.

“Disruption is limited at the moment, and retailers are monitoring the situation closely. Government will need to continue to listen to the concerns of the retail industry in the coming days and must be prepared to take further action if necessary."

Supermarket chain Morrisons (MRW.L) told Yahoo Finance that they also echo these comments.

Under the scheme, COVID-19 tests will be given to about 10,000 workers at 500 key sites in the food supply chain industry, including almost 200 supermarket depots.

Whilst the move will not be extended to the hospitality industry, there will be a limited easing of rules in vital public services, such as essential transport, border control, the emergency services, local government, and the energy industry.

"The reason we have made a special exception for food is for very obvious reasons. We need to make sure that we maintain our food supply. We will never take risks with our food supply,” George Eustice, secretary of the state for Environment, Food and Rule Affairs, said on Thursday night.

“We are trying to still dampen the pace and velocity at which this infection is spreading, because we have to keep a very close eye on those hospitalisations."

UKHospitality’s CEO, Kate Nicholls, said:

“It is disappointing that the Government has drawn the list of roles so tightly and left hospitality and the rest of the economy to face the consequences. We now face a summer of venue closures and reduced service, when we should be at a seasonal peak. The sector will do all it can to provide great service, but it will be with one hand tied behind our back.

“We all want to stop the spread of the virus, but we need a more pragmatic solution from Government. Those who are fully vaccinated should be able to test after a ping and, subject to a negative result, carry on with their lives. For those not fully vaccinated two negative tests should be sufficient to return to work.”

Watch: Testing to replace self-isolation for ‘pinged’ food supply chain workers

UKHospitality’s chief executive Kate Nicholls, said: “It is disappointing that the Government has drawn the list of roles so tightly and left hospitality and the rest of the economy to face the consequences. We now face a summer of venue closures and reduced service, when we should be at a seasonal peak. The sector will do all it can to provide great service, but it will be with one hand tied behind our back.

“We all want to stop the spread of the virus, but we need a more pragmatic solution from Government. Those who are fully vaccinated should be able to test after a ping and, subject to a negative result, carry on with their lives. For those not fully vaccinated two negative tests should be sufficient to return to work.”

It comes as a record number of people in England and Wales were contacted by the NHS app and told to self-isolate for up to 10 days. The latest figures showed that some 618,913 alerts were sent to users in the week to 14 July.

Confederation of British Industry director general Tony Danker said: "The current approach to self-isolation is closing down the economy rather than opening it up."

“Businesses have already exhausted contingency plans to get in extra staff and are at risk of grinding to a halt in the next few weeks," he said.

Read more: FTSE rises as Euro 2020 gives UK retail sales a boost

Ian Wright, chief of the Food and Drink Federation said: “The last few days of uncertainty have been a period of great disruption for the food and drink supply chain. It is clear that the government has listened to industry’s concerns and the recent announcement of exemptions from isolation, which includes food and drink manufacturers, is welcome.

“The devil is in the detail so we will continue to look into the guidance and further understand how the scheme will work.”

Over the last week, supermarkets have struggled to keep shelves fully stocked. The managing director of Iceland Foods told the FT that the plans to include only processing and distribution roles was “idiotic”.

“You cannot do one half of the chain but not the other,” Richard Walker said. “We’ll end up with fully stock stores but too few people to run them.”

A Sainsbury’s (SBRY.L) spokesperson told Yahoo Finance: “We are working hard to ensure customers can find what they need. While we might not always have the exact product a customer is looking for in every store, large quantities of products are being delivered to stores daily and our colleagues are focused on getting them onto the shelves as quickly as they can.”

Watch: COVID-19: Iceland warns against stockpiling as Tesco, Sainsbury's, and Co-op experience shortages amid 'pingdemic'

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