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Fears over food supply problems caused by the ‘pingdemic’ have led the Government to allow supermarket depot workers and food manufacturers to be exempt from quarantine rules. It comes after a record of more than 600,000 people were told to self isolate by the NHS Covid app between 8th and 15th July in England and Wales.
Workers will take daily Covid tests instead of isolating after large supermarket chains warned of issues in the food supply chain. Iceland, for instance, was forced to shut some shops after around 1,000 staff members were ‘pinged’ by the NHS app. However, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs urged consumers not to panic buy and said supermarket leaders at a roundtable with the Government had downplayed fears of shortages.
Up to 10,000 workers are expected to qualify for the scheme, but the rules will not apply to supermarket store staff. Environment secretary George Eustice has also ruled out extending the testing rules to other businesses, such as the hospitality sector.
Hannah Essex, co-executive director of the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC), warned that businesses would still face staff shortages regardless of the new measures. “While the announcement of a process which may exempt select critical workers from self-isolation in England will be a relief to some businesses, it will leave many more still facing critical staff shortages and lost revenue as the number of people being asked to isolate remains high.”
Nearly half of the businesses the BCC surveyed this week have either had staff off sick with Covid or self-isolating during the past two weeks. Independent businesses with small staff numbers are especially vulnerable to being forced to close their shops if staff are told to self-isolate. For example, Barleys Vegan Delicatessen, which is based in Kingston upon Hull, recently closed for five days after staff members were told to isolate. “Being such a teeny tiny family-run team, this means Barleys will be closed until next week,” the company said on its Instagram page. “Our tests have come back negative, but, naturally, we’re abiding by the rules to ensure we’re keeping everyone as safe as we can.”
NFU Vice President Tom Bradshaw said the exemptions also don’t go far enough to avoid disruption further down the food supply chain. “It is important to think about the whole food supply chain right back to farm because they produce the food that keeps processing plants and distribution centres going. We are hearing reports from farmers and growers who have robust Covid security plans in place but are increasingly concerned about workforce shortages, especially as the rise in Covid cases coincides with the start of harvest and when the picking and packing of fruit and veg is in full swing.”
“Pilot schemes for ‘test to release’ options have been running for some time now,” the BCC’s Hannah added, “and we would urge the government to immediately bring forward the results of those test schemes and set out how this could be used to enable more double vaccinated people to avoid self-isolation beyond this narrow group of critical workers.”
George Eustice said food businesses have been the “hidden heroes” of the pandemic. “We are working closely with industry to allow staff to go about their essential work safely with daily testing. The last 18 months have demonstrated that we have a highly resilient food supply chain. There are sufficient food supplies in the system and people can and should shop as normal,” he said.
“Throughout this global pandemic, workers in our food and drink sectors have overcome enormous challenges and done everything they can to keep our shelves stocked and our fridges full,” added health secretary Sajid Javid. “As we manage this virus and do everything we can to break chains of transmission, daily contact testing of workers in this vital sector will help to minimise the disruption caused by rising cases in the coming weeks, while ensuring workers are not put at risk.”
While the new rules may help to ensure the resilience of the food supply chain, shops that are struggling with low staff numbers due to Covid isolation, the ‘pingdemic’ continues.
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