'Pingdemic': Shoppers warned not to panic buy as some shelves lie empty

21 July 2021, 23:30 | Updated: 22 July 2021, 19:27

By Daisy Stephens

Shops are facing growing difficulties in keeping shelves stocked due to a shortage of staff who are isolating in the 'pingdemic'.

Iceland has said it had closed 'a number of stores' after 1,000 members of staff - 4% of its workforce - were 'pinged'.

Of the 1,000 Iceland workers, 27% have tested positive for Covid, while 64% have been "pinged" by the NHS App and told to isolate.

BP has also said it has had to temporarily close some of its stations due to a petrol and diesel supply problem caused by a shortage of lorry drivers who were also pinged.

Co-op and Sainsbury's also updated shoppers today on their supplies.

Live blog: Follow the latest updates on 'pingdemic' food shortages

Some shelves were empty on July 22
Some shelves were empty on July 22. Picture: Alamy

A Co-op spokesman said: "We are sorry that we are running low on some products. Like many retailers, we are impacted by some patchy disruption to our deliveries and store operations but we are working closely with our suppliers to get re-stocked quickly."

A Sainsbury's spokeswoman said: "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 on to the shelves as quickly as they can."

The government currently plans to keep isolation rules largely unchanged until 16 August. If someone is contacted by NHS Test and Trace and told to isolate then they are legally obliged to do so, but if someone is "pinged" by the app the requirement to self-isolate is only advisory.

Richard Walker, Managing Director at Iceland said: “We are seeing some stock shortages across stores, as a result of both staff absences caused by the Pingdemic and the ongoing HGV driver shortage.

"We need absolute clarity from the Government as soon as possible, including a Test and Trace self isolation exemption list, to include all retail workers and HGV drivers.

"We are urging people to avoid stockpiling and to shop responsibly – the industry is working hard to resolve the issue and panic buying will only increase pressure on retail workers who have worked tirelessly to feed the nation throughout the pandemic.”

The British Retail Consortium (BRC) has urged the Government to ensure staff in stores and suppliers should be allowed to work even if they get an alert to self-isolate.

Andrew Opie, director of food & sustainability at the BRC, said: "The ongoing 'pingdemic' is putting increasing pressure on retailers' ability to maintain opening hours and keep shelves stocked.

"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."

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In the face of widespread criticism from businesses over staff shortages, the Prime Minister announced a plan for a "small number" of critical workers to be able to continue going into work.

But he faced calls to clarify who would be eligible, after a Government statement said it would not be a "blanket exemption for any sector or role".

No 10 was unable to say how many people the Government will approve for the loosened rules, ahead of the full relaxation for everyone who is double-jabbed on August 16.

But it was not expected to reach the high tens of thousands, raising questions over whether supermarket workers would benefit.

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On Tuesday, the Prime Minister's official spokesman said: "The first exemptions I understand have already been given in some critical sectors, that work is going on given the urgency. That's in both wider sectors and the NHS as well."

He said employers should contact the suitable Government department to request exemptions.

"It's not a blanket exemption and my understanding is we're not going to be producing a list covering individual sectors, these business-critical areas will be able to apply for exemptions to their host departments," the spokesman said.

Asked specifically about supermarket workers, he said: "We're not seeking to draw lines specifically around who or who is not exempt.

"What's important is to make sure critical services are able to function and get that balance right between requiring people to isolate... but also making sure critical services can function."

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The BRC previously called for clarity on who would be exempt and said retail workers and suppliers should be included for the "vital role" they have played in the pandemic.

"While it is good that Government recognises the problems that are being created by an overzealous track and trace system, it remains unclear who will be covered under the new list of critical workers,” said BRC chief executive Helen Dickinson.

"With community cases soaring, the number of healthy retail staff having to self-isolate is rising fast, threatening to disrupt retail operations, and potentially close shops or distribution centres."

A health minister yesterday said "crucial services will be able to continue to operate" despite the "pingdemic" because of a new Covid system launching next month.

Helen Whately told the Commons there had been a "specific policy" which allowed NHS staff to continue to work even after being alerted by the NHS app as having been in contact with someone who had been infected.

NHS staff are only able to continue working under certain conditions, according to the minister, including being double-jabbed, having regular Covid tests, and having approval from a senior public health official.