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‘Pingdemic’: why supermarket shelves are half-empty again | Supermarkets

For shoppers the sight of “pingdemic”-related gaps on their local supermarket’s shelves will be a worrying reminder of their experience in the early weeks of the pandemic when panic buying emptied stores of food.

How is the test-and-trace system affecting supermarkets?

On Thursday the British Retail Consortium (BRC) added its voice to the chorus of trade bodies and business leaders warning that staff shortages, caused by the huge number of healthy workers self-isolating after being “pinged” by NHS test and trace, was “putting increasing pressure on retailers’ ability to maintain opening hours and keep shelves stocked”.

The picture of staff absence is uneven, with some retailers reporting that 30% of workers are off in some areas. However, the average rate is though to be closer to 10% (which is well below the kind of absence levels seen at the height of the health crisis last year).

This is not just a problem for shopkeepers. It is causing disruption in the factories, including bakeries and meat processing plants, that make the food they sell. The British Meat Processors’ Association said a shortage of workers meant some factories were struggling to fill one in six roles even before the pingdemic, which had now forced between 5 and 10% of their workforce to self-isolate.

Are there other factors affecting food supplies?

Yes. Some analysts say that a chronic lorry driver shortage is the crux of the problem, with the situation exacerbated by truckers being “pinged”. Logistics UK estimates there is a shortfall of 90,000 HGV drivers, a figure that includes 25,000 EU truckers who returned home after Brexit. This shortage is affecting the ability to suppliers to deliver stock to supermarket depots too.

What foods are being affected?

The picture of product shortages is described as “patchy” by supermarkets. There is also the impact of the soaring temperatures on shopping habits as Britons flock to buy ice lollies, soft drinks, bottled water, beer and salad. With the school holidays under way, the millions of extra staycationers – who would normally be in Spain or France – are adding to the pressure on supermarket supplies in holiday hotspots such as Cornwall. These holidaymakers of course include retail workers taking a well-deserved summer break, meaning it is a time of year where, like many businesses, staff numbers are depleted anyway.

What is being done to prevent shortages?

The BRC argues that retail workers and suppliers should be allowed to work provided they are double vaccinated or can show a negative Covid test. In the meantime, retailers have started to recruit thousands of temporary staff for the summer. The government has said certain industries will be able to apply for staff exemptions, but it has yet to publish its guidance. It has also announced a consultation to allow drivers to take one test to drive articulated and rigid lorries to speed up the process of attaining licences for all types of HGVs.

How serious is the threat to food supplies?

Food industry sources insist that product shortages are not in the same league as those seen last year, when shoppers bought three times as much as usual. Tesco and Sainsbury’s, the UK’s two biggest supermarket chains, have both sought to reassure shoppers that they have plenty of food. Sainsbury’s adds that while it “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”.

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