Grocery chain Iceland is aiming to recruit 2,000 spare staff to help cover absences caused by the self-isolation “pingdemic”, as retailers warned it was becoming difficult to maintain opening hours and keep shelves stocked.
The retailer said it had been forced to reduce trading hours and even shut some stores as it experienced staff shortages caused by workers receiving notifications from the NHS test-and-trace app.
Richard Walker, the head of Iceland, said that a handful of outlets had been forced to close after more than 1,000 workers – just more than 3% of the group’s total – had been asked to self-isolate after being “pinged” by the app.
However, he said the company had decided to take on more staff as the problems were patchy – with some stores experiencing much higher vacancy rates than others – while the number of people having to isolate was “growing about 50% week on week, and that was really alarming”.
Walker called on the government to adjust the app or self-isolation rules urgently, ahead of planned changes on 16 August. “Supermarkets need to focus on feeding the nation not writing to government departments,” he said. He said that about 96% of those alerted by the NHS app who worked for Iceland did not test positive for Covid-19.
Andrew Opie, director of food at the British Retail Consortium trade body, said staff shortages could have an impact on opening hours and shelf stacking.
“The ongoing ‘pingdemic’ is putting increasing pressure on retailers’ ability to maintain opening hours and keep shelves stocked. Government needs to act fast,” said Opie. “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.”
The warning came as the British Meat Processors’ Association (BMPA) said some plants had already been hit by staff shortages of up to 16% even without the impact of the pingdemic.
“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 [health service] app and asked to self-isolate,” said the chief executive of BMPA, Nick Allen.
The shortage of workers affected the meat products that require more labour to produce, he said, meaning those lines would be the first to be cut.
The self-isolation problem is only adding to shortages of delivery workers, especially HGV lorry drivers, caused by a mix of Brexit, Covid and changes to tax rules.
Leading retailers say absence rates are currently at about 10%, which is far lower than at the peak of the pandemic last spring, but difficult to manage as certain stores and product categories are more heavily affected.
Some stores have absence rates as high as 30%, with the north-east and north-west of England worst affected, while key deliveries in certain parts of the country have also been affected.
Surges in demand for fresh fruit, salad and other hot weather staples brought on by the sudden heatwave have also added to difficulties. Unusually high demand in holiday destination areas has also led to shortages as delivery systems struggle to keep up.