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23 July 2021updated 04 Oct 2023 9:55am

Why supermarkets are struggling to prevent empty shelves

Bulk-buying and a rising number of cases have led to temporary shortages of some products.

By Glenn Armstrong

UK shoppers have once more been asked not to stockpile food, toiletries or other items as the high number of Covid-19 cases and of workers being asked to self-isolate impacts supermarket supply chains.

Which shops are affected?

A spokesperson from the Co-op described the situation as “short-term but significant” and warned that “a large majority of Co-op stores” are experiencing lower levels of some products. Waitrose is said to be offering “limited choice” and Sainsbury’s has said there is “patchy availability in some stores of some products”. Tesco has said that it is experiencing “temporary low availability across a small number of products”. All chains are seeking to alleviate fears about the extent of their shortages, but Iceland has expressed concern after it was forced to recruit 2,000 temporary workers to replace the 4 per cent of its national workforce who are self-isolating.

Why are there supermarket shortages?

A continued rise in Covid-19 cases has led to a still greater rise in the number of people who have come into contact with an infected person and are now required to self-isolate for ten days. Between the 8 and 15 July, the NHS app sent out 618,903 alerts to self-isolate, a 17 per cent rise on the previous week . In the seven days before “Freedom Day” on Monday 19 July, Covid cases in the UK rose by 41 per cent . A combination of self-isolation and a delay in testing hauliers has impacted supply chains and left supermarkets struggling to keep stores stocked at normal levels. The British Meat Processors Association has reported that some of its members are experiencing 5-10 per cent self-isolation-related staff shortages, reducing the number of products they can send to stores.

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Brexit may also be a factor. The Road Haulage Association estimates there is shortage of 100,000 HGV drivers in the UK, which may be preventing goods from reaching their destination.

Pandemic or pingdemic?

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Andrew Opie, the director of food at the British Retail Consortium, has said the government needs to act fast” to tackle “the ongoing pingdemic‘”, which he blames for the staff shortages. However, others say the rising case numbers behind the “pings” are the real concern. The Chartered Institute for IT has made it clear that it believes the “pingdemic crisis is down to incoherent policy rather than the app”. The Sage scientists advising the government also warned yesterday (22 July) that if hospital admissions rise above expected levels, then ministers should reimpose restrictions in as little as three weeks. Of the 1,000 Iceland workers currently self-isolating, it has been reported that nearly 30 per cent had not been “pinged” but had tested positive for Covid-19.

Which products are in the shortest supply?

It has been reported that soft drinks, beer and personal care products such as deodorant have been the most likely to be affected by supermarket shortages. Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng has said that he doesn’t “want people to get the impression that every shelf in every supermarket is bare”, but from Edinburgh to Liverpool and from Devon to London, shoppers have posted pictures of empty or sparse shelves on social media.

As with the toilet paper shortages in March 2020, however, the empty shelves are as likely to have been caused by bulk buying of products as they are by real supply chain issues.

How long will the situation last?

Yesterday evening, the government announced that it would introduce daily testing for key workers in the food industry, through 500 rapidly-deployed testing sites. These sites should begin popping up at the start of next week, and will likely include large supermarket distribution centres. Those workers who are ‘‘pinged’’ will have to test negative, but if they do so they will be exempt from the usual ten days of self-isolation.

There is a catch, however. This scheme is only available for 10,000 food supply-chain workers and will not include supermarket staff themselves. There have also been suggestions that this scheme will only be available to those workers who have been fully vaccinated, which could also limit its effect given only 69 per cent of the adult population has received two jabs.

The government is hoping that this daily testing regime will begin to alleviate pressure on supermarket shelves from the start of next week. However, it’s clear that it is struggling to maintain the integrity of the self-isolation system, given that the rising case load is leading to evermore staff shortages and therefore calls for further industries to be exempted from the self-isolation rules.