Fears over shortages as supermarkets hit by ‘pingdemic’

Supermarkets apologised for empty shelves in stores yesterday amid warnings that the “pingdemic” was putting a strain on supply chains. Read more: Fears over shortages as supermarkets hit by ‘pingdemic’

Fears over shortages as supermarkets hit by ‘pingdemic’

Supermarkets apologised for empty shelves in stores yesterday amid warnings that the “pingdemic” was putting a strain on supply chains.

Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Waitrose all said they were facing problems, blaming factors including a growing number of staff and delivery drivers being forced to isolate after coming into contact with someone with Covid-19.

Andrew Opie, director of food and sustainability at the British Retail Consortium, which represents supermarkets, said: “The ongoing ‘pingdemic’ is putting increasing pressure on retailers’ ability to maintain opening hours and keep shelves stocked. Government needs to act fast.”

Ministers confirmed yesterday that supermarket workers were unlikely to be granted an exemption from isolating if they came into contact with someone who had the coronavirus. Downing Street said that a “very small” number of people in critical sectors such as energy and telecommunications would be allowed to take daily tests instead of isolating.

Up to a million people have been instructed to isolate including about 500,000 who have been pinged by the NHS Covid-19 app.

Pictures on social media showed empty shelves in certain supermarkets. Shoppers reported shortages of meat, bread, fruit and vegetables as well as lavatory paper.

Yesterday Waitrose put up notices in some of its stores apologising for the “limited choice” because of “nationwide supply issues”. Tesco told customers it was “working hard to resolve” issues with its supply chain. A spokeswoman for Sainsbury’s acknowledged that there was “patchy availability in some stores of some products”.

Iceland confirmed that in the next few days it would begin drafting in a further 2,000 people to fill temporary roles across its shops. The retailer has been forced to reduce opening hours this week because of staff absences.

Nick Allen, chief executive of the British Meats Processors Association, said that “something is going to crack” if workers at food production plants continue to have to isolate.

“If they lose too many in the plants then they will have to close and shut down lines. A lot of them are saying they’ve never experienced anything like this. This is the worst we have experienced during the whole pandemic.”

Supermarkets said it was a “perfect storm”. The “pingdemic” is causing growing numbers of depot staff, shop assistants, delivery drivers and food production workers to isolate, but retailers were already facing a shortage of HGV drivers. The extreme hot weather has also caused huge demand for certain items, causing issues with restocking supplies. German flooding leading to some re-routing of European deliveries is also contributing.

Yesterday Sir Keir Starmer became the latest politician to self-isolate. The Labour leader has gone into isolation after one of his children tested positive for the coronavirus. Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak, the chancellor, are also isolating after Sajid Javid, the health secretary, contracted the coronavirus.

Dan Rosenfield, the prime minister’s chief of staff, and Ed Argar, a health minister, are also isolating.

Starmer was told he needed to isolate an hour after accusing Johnson of presiding over a “summer of chaos” and mocking him for being in quarantine on “freedom day” on Monday.

The prime minister, appearing via videolink from Chequers, apologised to those being pinged for the inconvenience but he is resisting calls to reduce the sensitivity of the app that detects contacts. The government is expected to replace quarantine with daily testing for those who have been vaccinated from August 16.

The prime minister said: “I apologise to everybody in business up and down the land in all kinds of services, public sector or otherwise, who are experiencing inconvenience.”

The disruption has led to a reduction in train services. Yesterday, it emerged that two major networks in the southeast — Southern and Thameslink — would operate a reduced timetable from next week. Lorry driver shortages are also affecting fuel supplies at some of BP’s petrol stations.

Engaged couples are among those affected by the requirement to isolate. No 10 said they should cancel their wedding ceremonies if they are pinged by the NHS Covid app on the day of their marriage.

Boris Johnson urged brides and grooms to self-isolate if contacted by the app, after days of conflicting advice from ministers.

Earlier in the week, two ministers, Paul Scully and Lord Grimstone, had emphasised that there was no legal obligation to self-isolate if alerted by the app.

Yesterday, in a further sign of government backing for the app, Victoria Atkins, a Home Office minister, said brides and grooms should self-isolate rather than go ahead with their ceremonies if contacted on their wedding day.

“Oh gosh, the guidance is ‘please, you must stay at home’,” she told LBC Radio. “That is a terribly, terribly difficult scenario.”

Asked whether Atkins had been correct to tell couples to postpone their nuptials if pinged, the prime minister’s official spokesman conceded that cancelling a wedding would be a “difficult situation” but said it was important that people complied with the guidance on self-isolation.

The spokesman said: “The app is carrying out an important function. We know that one in three people contacted either by Test and Trace or by the app develops coronavirus symptoms. So that demonstrates the importance of people isolating when asked to do so.”

The government is expected to publish the list of sectors that will be exempt from quarantine shortly.

The prime minister’s official spokesman said: “The prime minister has said from the start this will be a very small number of people. We appreciate there will be businesses that want to have those exemptions. But again we need to strike the balance between protecting public health during a global pandemic and keeping vital services running.”

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Fears over shortages as supermarkets hit by ‘pingdemic’

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UK demand rewrite of Brexit deal for Northern Ireland

Britain and the European Union are at loggerheads over government demands to rewrite the Brexit deal for Northern Ireland and strip EU courts of their right to police the agreement. Read more: UK demand rewrite of Brexit deal for Northern Ireland

UK demand rewrite of Brexit deal for Northern Ireland

Britain and the European Union are at loggerheads over government demands to rewrite the Brexit deal for Northern Ireland and strip EU courts of their right to police the agreement.

In a series of proposals published yesterday ministers said Brussels must allow goods that do not meet European standards to continue to be sold in the province and reduce the number of checks on products being sent across the Irish sea.

Lord Frost, the Brexit minister, also insisted the EU must give up its right to take disputes over the Northern Ireland protocol to the European Court of Justice.

It came as the chairman of Marks & Spencer, Archie Norman, said there would likely be “gaps on shelves” in Northern Ireland once light-touch export rules end in September.

“This Christmas, I can tell you already, we’re having to make decisions to delist product for Northern Ireland because it’s simply not worth the risk of trying to get it through,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. “We’ve already made that decision. We’re waiting to see how serious it’s going to be, but if it’s anything like southern Ireland [the Republic of Ireland], and at the moment it’s set to be, then it’s going to be very, very serious for customers.”

He added: “It risks being incendiary for the public in Northern Ireland because you can’t think of a more visible demonstration of how you’re not a full part of the UK than you can’t get your favourite Christmas products. You can’t buy M&S chicken, free-range eggs, sandwiches.”

Lord Frost stopped short of warning that the UK would trigger Article 16 of the protocol, despite claiming that the conditions to activate it had been met. Under the agreement Article 16 — suspending all or part of the treaty — can be triggered unilaterally if it is causing significant damage to the economy and society.

Frost said the UK preferred to try negotiating changes to the protocol to address the government’s concerns, but he did not rule out using the mechanism if it was needed.

In an article in The Times today he says the “ball is now in the EU’s court” and urges Brussels “to think carefully” about the proposals.

“There is a huge prize on offer here – stability in Northern Ireland and a better relationship between us as Europeans,” he writes. “Moving away from established positions, and being ready to compromise.”

The UK side described its proposals as constructive but privately admitted it would require renegotiating the protocol that was only agreed with the EU 18 months ago. This was rejected by the European Commission’s vice-president, Maros Sefcovic, who said “respecting international legal obligations is of paramount importance”.

“We will continue to engage with the UK (and) are ready to continue to seek creative solutions, within the framework of the protocol, in the interest of all communities in Northern Ireland. However, we will not agree to a renegotiation. Joint action in the joint bodies established by the withdrawal agreement will be of paramount importance over the coming months. We must prioritise stability and predictability in Northern Ireland.”

This was echoed by the Irish premier Micheal Martin, who said: “We’ve made it very clear to the UK government that the mechanisms exist within the withdrawal agreement for issues that need to be resolved within the operation of the protocol.”

Ministers said they wanted to engage in “productive” talks with the EU over the changes. Outlining the proposals in the Lords, Frost said the government was suggesting a standstill in the ongoing disputes over the protocol to give time for the talks to take place. But he warned that, even with the current exemptions, the situation was unsustainable and that Britain would be in its rights to unilaterally terminate elements of the agreement.

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UK demand rewrite of Brexit deal for Northern Ireland

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