A man stands next to shelves empty of fresh meat in a supermarket, as the number of worldwide coronavirus cases continues to grow, in London, Britain, March 15, 2020. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls
By Guy Faulconbridge, James Davey
Britain’s supermarkets, wholesalers and hauliers were struggling on Thursday to ensure stable food and fuel supplies after an official health app told hundreds of thousands of workers to isolate after contact with someone with COVID-19.
British newspapers carried front page pictures of empty shelves in supermarkets. Reuters reporters said food items were widely available in London shops although there were some shortages of bottled water, soft drinks, and some salad and meat products.
“We’re very concerned about the situation,” Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng told Sky when asked about reports of empty supermarket shelves in some areas. “We’re monitoring the situation.” He said he did not recognise Sky’s characterisation of “bare” supermarket shelves.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s bet that he could reopen England’s economy because so many people have been vaccinated has been tarnished by the so-called “pingdemic” in which people have been told by the app to isolate for 10 days.
The drastic reduction in staffing that has resulted has sown chaos through sectors as diverse as food supplies, haulage, supermarkets, hospitality, manufacturing and media. To avoid the chaos, many have simply deleted the app from their phones.
British ministers say the app plays an important role in countering the spread of the virus and has allowed some workers in critical roles to carry on working as coronavirus infections surge again, with more than 44,000 recorded on Wednesday. Many businesses said the situation was becoming grave.
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. Supermarket group Iceland said it has closed a number of stores due to staff shortages.
“We have a structural issue with HGV drivers for a variety of different reasons, but of course the pingdemic has made it even worse,” Managing Director Richard Walker told ITV. “We are starting to see some availability issues.”
Andrew Opie, director of food & sustainability at industry lobby group, the British Retail Consortium, said the government needed to act swiftly. “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.