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Covid: Shoppers told there is no need to panic buy

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The boss of Iceland has said there is no need for people to start panic buying, but has warned that the rising number of retail workers being forced to self-isolate risks shutting shops.

Managing director Richard Walker said photographs of empty shelves in supermarkets were “isolated incidents”.

While there were “some availability issues”, he said, “our supply chains are resilient”.

But he said the government must make retail staff exempt from isolating.

Iceland, M&S and other businesses said growing numbers of staff have been “pinged” by the NHS Covid-19 app which means they have to self-isolate for 10 days. Businesses want people who have been double vaccinated or have daily tests to be able to return to work.

However, the government says it is crucial people isolate when asked do so to stop the spread of the virus.

Many of Thursday’s newspaper front pages carried pictures of empty shelves in some supermarket branches – with some describing panic buying of certain items – but industry sources told the BBC that so far food shortages were not a systemic problem.

The Co-op said it was “running low on some products”. It added: “Like many retailers, we are impacted by some patchy disruption to our deliveries and store operations but we are working closely with our suppliers to get re-stocked quickly.”

Iceland’s Mr Walker told the BBC’s Today programme: “There is certainly no problem with supply of stock and there’s absolutely no need for people to panic buy.

“We certainly don’t want to go back to the dark days of April 2020 because panic buying is only an option for those who can afford it and it often means that others go without.”

But he said “the people who should be panicking are the government” because of the growing number of workers being “pinged” by the NHS app.

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About 1,000 Iceland employees – almost 4% of its staff – are currently absent for Covid-related reasons, with the north of England most affected.

Of these, 27% have tested positive for Covid, while 64% have been “pinged” by the NHS Covid App and told to isolate.

“That could get a lot worse a lot quicker unless the track and trace system is sorted out,” Mr Walker said.

The British Retail Consortium (BRC) said ministers needed to “act fast” and allow fully vaccinated retail workers or those who had tested negative for Covid to go to work.

Andrew Opie, director of food and sustainability at the BRC, said the increasing number of workers being told to isolate by the NHS Covid App was “putting increasing pressure on retailers’ ability to maintain opening hours and keep shelves stocked”.

He called for retail staff and suppliers to be allowed to go to work if they were double vaccinated or tested negative for Covid.

Mr Opie said a fall in the number of available HGV drivers, exacerbated by the rising numbers being forced to isolate, was also “resulting in minor disruption to some supply chains”.

The Road Haulage Association estimates there is a shortage of 100,000 HGV drivers in the UK due to workers returning to Europe following Brexit as well as delays in testing hauliers for Covid.

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Meanwhile, the British Meat Processor’s Association said some members were seeing between 5% and 10% of their workforce “pinged” by the app.

Under current self-isolation rules in England, anyone who is traced as a close contact of a confirmed positive case must isolate for 10 days, whether or not they have received both doses of a vaccine.

If someone is told to isolate by NHS Test and Trace they are legally obliged to do so.

But if someone is “pinged” by the NHS Covid app the requirement to self-isolate is only advisory.

Andrew Selley, chief executive of Bidfood UK, which supplies produce to hospitals, care home and prisons as well as restaurants, said it was asking workers who have been “pinged” to come back to work after they have taken a negative PCR test.

“We have a process of doing lateral flow tests daily away from their workplace and if that is negative then they can proceed with their work,” Mr Selley said.

Earlier this week, the government announced a “small number” of fully vaccinated critical workers, including health and care staff, would be allowed to continue to do their job even if they were a close contact of someone who had tested positive for Covid.

But the prime minister has said he does not want to extend the exemption too widely in order to limit the spread of the virus.

The government has argued it is necessary to keep isolation rules largely unchanged until 16 August.

From that date, people who are fully vaccinated and under-18s will be able to avoid self-isolating by taking daily Covid tests.

But Mr Selley said it was unclear how to apply to the government to get exemptions for Bidfood workers. “We are taking the view that our staff were critical workers during the first three lockdowns so we are critical workers – I can’t see how [food] supply wouldn’t be a critical part of the economy.”

Staff shortages due to isolation rules have impacted sectors including hospitality, transport and the NHS.

On Wednesday, BP said lorry driver shortages and isolating staff had caused fuel supply issues at some of its petrol stations.

The oil firm said shortages of unleaded petrol and diesel had seen a “handful” of its UK sites close temporarily.

Have you experienced shops struggling to keep their shelves stocked? Or do you work in a shop affected by staff absences? Get in touch.

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