The UK business secretary confirmed the government was “monitoring” the situation as supermarkets apologised for empty shelves due to workers being forced to self-isolate after having contact with people with coronavirus.
“I know we are seeing shortages,” he said. “I’ve seen the pictures today. We are very concerned about some developments,” said Kwasi Kwarteng.
Business groups have called for the government to bring forward its plan to exempt all doubled-jabbed people from self-isolation from August 16, even if they are “pinged” by the NHS Test and Trace app and advised to self-isolate.
The British Retail Consortium said the so-called “pingdemic” was putting pressure on retailers’ ability to maintain opening hours and keep aisles stocked, adding: “Government needs to act fast.”
Kwarteng insisted that the food shortages were “not a universal thing” despite pictures appearing on social media and in newspapers. “I don’t want people to get the impression that every shelf in every supermarket is bare. That’s not the case,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
“But we are certainly concerned about incidents of shortages and looking at the supply chains of critical industries. We are reviewing that situation,” he added.
But Kwarteng said individuals should still quarantine if they are contacted through the system. “I would strongly recommend that they continue to do that,” he said.
Britain’s food supply chains are “right on the edge of failing” as absence related to Covid-19 has aggravated a critical shortage of labour, a meat industry body said on Wednesday.
The British Meat Processors’ Association reported that at some plants 10-16 per cent of permanent positions were vacant due to the growing skills shortage.
“On top of the underlying worker shortage, we’re also hearing from some members that between 5 and 10 per cent of their workforce have been ‘pinged’ by the [health service] app and asked to self-isolate,” Nick Allen, BMPA chief executive, said.
Business groups told Kwarteng at a heated online meeting on Tuesday night that the situation was becoming increasingly critical and was damaging transport network, factories and supply chains.
“If we want to stop Covid spreading like wildfire . . . the government must support people to self-isolate,” said Frances O’Grady, general secretary of the TUC, which represents trade unions in England and Wales.
“With hundreds of thousands of cases reported in the past week — and over half a million people pinged — it beggars belief that ministers are still refusing to provide decent sick pay.”
At the same time, more than 1m children are now self-isolating because of outbreaks of coronavirus in their schools.
The government has announced exemptions for some sectors identified as critical, including health and transport. It indicated that further details will be set out on Thursday afternoon.
Iceland Foods said more than 1,000 workers, 3 per cent of its total UK staff, have been asked to self-isolate, after being pinged by the app, forcing it to reduce trading hours and shut stores.
It plans to recruit 2,000 additional staff to cover absences due to self-isolation. But Richard Walker, managing director of Iceland, told Radio 4 that the photographs of empty shelves were “isolated incidents” and warned the public against panic-buying.
Andrew Opie, director of food and sustainability at the BRC, said the government needs to act quickly to bring the disruption under control.
“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,” he said.
Sir Keir Starmer, Labour party leader, on Wednesday became the latest politician to self-isolate after one of his children tested positive for Covid-19. Prime minister Boris Johnson, chancellor Rishi Sunak and health secretary Sajid Javid have been isolating since the weekend.