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Britain’s supermarkets, wholesalers and carriers are struggling to ensure stable food and fuel supplies after an official health app ordered hundreds of thousands of workers to isolate themselves after contacting someone with COVID-19.
On Thursday, newspapers ran front-page photos of empty supermarket shelves, while shoppers also took to social media to highlight shortages of certain products in stores across the country.
The Reuters news agency reported that food products were widely available in shops in the capital London, although there were some shortages of bottled water, soft drinks and some salads and meat products. Sainsbury’s, the UK’s second-largest supermarket group, said shoppers can generally find the products they want, although perhaps not every brand.
Trade minister Kwasi Kwarteng responded to reports of empty supermarket shelves in some areas, telling British broadcaster Sky News that the government was “very concerned about the situation”.
He added that officials were closely monitoring events.
Kwarteng’s comments came after many companies warned that the situation was getting serious, with supply chains faltering due to the number of workers isolated amid the so-called “pingdemic” in the UK.
As the number of infections rises across the country, hundreds of thousands of people have been “pinged” by the National Health Service (NHS) app, telling them to stay home for up to 10 days after being in close contact with a person who has tested positive for the coronavirus.
In the first week of July alone, more than half a million people had to self-isolate — the highest weekly figure since the app’s launch in September 2020 — and that number continues to rise. Official data from Thursday showed nearly 620,000 people in England and Wales had to be isolated in the week to July 14, the vast majority of them in England.
It came after a meat industry body warned on Wednesday that Britain’s food supply chains are “on the brink of failure”, with absences linked to COVID-19 exacerbating a serious labor shortage.
Supermarket group Iceland has meanwhile announced that it has closed a number of stores due to staff shortages.
“We have a structural problem with trucks [heavy goods vehicles] drivers for various reasons, but of course the ‘pingdemic’ has made it worse,” director Richard Walker told British broadcaster ITV.
“We’re starting to see some availability issues.”
Reopening marred by ‘pingdemic’
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s move to further ease England’s COVID-19 lockdown restrictions on Monday and boost the country’s pandemic-ravaged economy has been affected by the number of people now in self-isolation.
The app’s warnings, which are advisory but not legally binding, have also caused massive disruptions in the hospitality industry, manufacturing and media, as well as the UK’s transport network, schools and healthcare system.
Ministers have argued that the system plays an important role in curbing the spread of the virus as the COVID-19 caseload rises in the UK, with more than 44,000 new infections registered on Wednesday.
In an effort to ease pressure on some sectors, the government announced Monday it would allow workers in certain critical positions to continue working despite being “pinged” when fully vaccinated.
Officials have said waivers will be “considered on a case-by-case basis,” requiring employers to submit applications on behalf of staff members, and there will be no general list of eligible critical workers.
Infections are expected to increase
Andrew Opie, director of food and sustainability at the industry lobby group, the British Retail Consortium, called on the government to act quickly.
“Retail workers and suppliers, who have played a critical role during this pandemic, should be able to work provided they are double vaccinated or can show a negative COVID test, to ensure the public is not disturbed in obtaining food. and other goods,” he said.
While the NHS app’s self-isolation pings are only advisory, anyone in England contacted directly by the Test and Trace service must be isolated for 10 days by law.
The UK has the seventh highest death toll in the world from COVID-19 and the number of new cases is expected to rise sharply following the recent lifting of restrictions in England, which Johnson has characterized as “Freedom Day”.
But a rapid vaccination program in which 87 percent of adults have received at least one vaccine dose and more than 68 percent have been fully vaccinated appears to have weakened the link between infections and deaths.
The daily number of deaths has remained low in recent weeks compared to previous waves of the pandemic.
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