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Pingdemic crisis deepens: Supermarket shelves empty as food supply chains ‘start to fail’

Food supply chains are ‘starting to fail’ due to staff shortages fuelled by the ‘pingdemic’, an industry leader warned today, as police struggled to answer 999 calls and postal delays kicked in. 

The meat trade body said it could not rely on Boris Johnson‘s new exemption for some fully vaccinated workers to replenish supplies because the bar has been set ‘very, very high’.

Today a third of the Dorset Police control room staff were off work after being notified by the NHS Covid app or Test & Trace to self-isolate or following a positive test – at the same time as 999 calls surged 20% week on week.

Royal Mail has also seen an increase in absences due to staff having to self-isolate, and this morning announced delays to deliveries in 10 parts of England.

In the face of widespread anger over staff shortages as Covid cases continued to soar, the Prime Minister this week announced a plan for a ‘small number’ of critical workers to be able to continue their functions.

But British Meat Processors Association chief executive Nick Allen criticised ‘confusing messages’ from the Government as he said ministers have not clarified who is applicable.

‘There’s an air of despondency creeping through the industry really. Until now we’ve managed to keep the food supply chain running but there’s a sense of we’re starting to fail on that front,’ he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

Asked if production lines are stalling, he said: ‘They are. It’s happening already. We’re starting to see that at retail level and in restaurants – everyone is struggling to get things out really.’

Royal Mail has also seen an increase in absences due to staff having to self-isolate, and this morning announced delays to deliveries in 10 parts of England

Shoppers have shared photos of gaps on the shelves at some supermarkets as the food supply chain was hit by a surge in self-isolating workers

Shoppers have shared photos of gaps on the shelves at some supermarkets as the food supply chain was hit by a surge in self-isolating workers 

The government recently announced it would excuse some HGV drivers from self-isolating to relieve supply shortages. Pictured are bare shelves at a Morrisons in Bradford

The government recently announced it would excuse some HGV drivers from self-isolating to relieve supply shortages. Pictured are bare shelves at a Morrisons in Bradford 

A fish section at a Tesco. The latest figures show more than 500,000 people in England and Wales were asked to isolate by the NHS app in the week up to July 1

A fish section at a Tesco. The latest figures show more than 500,000 people in England and Wales were asked to isolate by the NHS app in the week up to July 1

Mr Allen said the industry is not clear who is covered by the exemption for a small number of double-jabbed critical workers.

‘It was made very clear to us late yesterday that this exemption will be for very, very few people. They described it as setting the bar very, very high and we’re certainly not counting on that,’ he said.

Pubs and shops have complained about having to close because of the number of people being ‘pinged’ as contacts by the NHS Covid-19 app, while medics have also raised concerns.

The latest figures show more than 500,000 people in England and Wales were asked to isolate by the NHS app in the week up to July 1.

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Samuel Tombs, from consultants Pantheon Macroeconomics, estimated that after including confirmed cases, and taking into account the subsequent growth in infections, it was plausible that 1.77m people, or 2.7% of the population, was not self-isolating. 

The issue has hit the health service itself, Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers, saying many ambulance and acute hospital trusts were finding themselves ‘under extreme pressure’ because of a combination of ‘very high demand and very high levels of staff absence due to self-isolation’.  

The recent days have seen delays on the Tube, trains and the cancellation of bin collections.  

The latest play to be cancelled after losing cast members to self-isolation is Kenneth Branagh’s production of The Browning Version, the Financial Times reported.   

Mr Johnson resisted calls from businesses struggling to cope with reduced staffing levels by declining to introduce a more wide-reaching change to quarantine rules ahead of August 16, when a testing regime will replace the requirement for fully-vaccinated contacts to isolate.

The Prime Minister argued self-isolation is ‘one of the few shots we have got left in our locker’ as he scrapped most remaining legal restrictions in England on so-called ‘freedom day’ on Monday.

He suggested an exemption would cover some in hospitals and care homes, or working in the supply of food, electricity and medicines, and transport, defence and borders.

But the Government has said there is no ‘blanket exemption for any sector or role’ and decisions will be made largely on a case-by-case basis.

Downing Street has declined to say how many people will be granted exemptions, but it is understood the figure is not expected to reach the high tens of thousands.

One executive said officials had suggested yesterday that they would take an ‘unbelievably hard line’ on exemptions as they sought to minimise the relief.

‘The mood might change if there are empty shelves over the weekend,’ he said. 

A picture of bare shelves in a Sainsbury's taken this week. Supermarkets are confident that low supplies of any particular products can be quickly replenished

A picture of bare shelves in a Sainsbury’s taken this week. Supermarkets are confident that low supplies of any particular products can be quickly replenished 

A shortage of HGV drivers in Britain - caused by a combination of Brexit and the pandemic - is affecting some businesses. Pictured is a photo of shelves in a Sainsbury's this week

A shortage of HGV drivers in Britain – caused by a combination of Brexit and the pandemic – is affecting some businesses. Pictured is a photo of shelves in a Sainsbury’s this week 

Today a third of the Dorset Police control room staff were off work after being notified by the NHS Covid app or Test & Trace to self-isolate or following a positive test. It came amid a surge of calls and an influx of visitors to spots like Bournemouth Beach

Today a third of the Dorset Police control room staff were off work after being notified by the NHS Covid app or Test & Trace to self-isolate or following a positive test. It came amid a surge of calls and an influx of visitors to spots like Bournemouth Beach

Nearly one in four people has deleted or switched off the app – and millions more say they will refuse to isolate if 'pinged'

Nearly one in four people has deleted or switched off the app – and millions more say they will refuse to isolate if ‘pinged’

The deluge of absences at Dorset Police comes at a time of heightened demand for the emergency service, with calls to 101, the non-emergency number, up by 11% from last week.

And the crisis is set to worsen – hundreds of thousands of families from outside the area are starting to flood into resorts like Bournemouth as the school holidays begin and temperatures remain balmy.

A spokesman said 35 per cent of control room staff are currently off because they Covid, coronavirus symptoms or are having to self-isolate following a request by the NHS Test and Trace app.

‘Significant work has been undertaken to mitigate the impact this is having on our service and many of those who are isolating are able to work from home and respond to non-urgent calls to service that are made via our digital channels,’ she said.

‘We are asking the public to help us further by using our online non-emergency channels where possible rather than calling 101.

‘Anyone calling 101 may have to wait some time before speaking to a call handler as our 999 service must remain our priority.

‘Please remember, only dial 999 in an emergency – when life is threatened, people are injured, offenders are nearby, or immediate action is required. We would like to thank the public for their understanding and patience at this challenging time.’

The Road Haulage Association estimates there is now a shortage of 100,000 lorry drivers in the UK, which they warn has been hampering deliveries of food from warehouses to supermarkets.

Thousands of prospective drivers are waiting for their HGV tests due to a backlog caused by lockdown, while many existing ones have left the UK after Brexit.

A Food and Drink Federation survey found three-quarters of its members reported a shortage of drivers. 

The problem has been exacerbated by Covid, with drivers having to go into self-isolation.

It comes as a survey revealed that one in five NHS Covid app users have turned off contact-tracing and a tenth have deleted it all together.

The YouGov poll showed a fifth of Covid app users have either turned off their Bluetooth of their mobile phones – essentially stopping its contact-tracing function.


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