Don't panic over empty supermarket shelves, minister urges

Business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng has urged shoppers not to panic over empty supermarket shelves during the so-called coronavirus “pingdemic”.

However, he admitted he was “concerned” about some shortages.

With record numbers of people being told to self-isolate after being “pinged” by the NHS Covid-19 app, retailers have warned the staffing situation is “untenable”.

Iceland’s managing director, Richard Walker, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme the company is being forced to hire 2,000 temporary workers to prepare for an “exponential rise in pinging”.

Walker said empty shelves are not currently widespread but that the government should be “panicking” about the situation surrounding retail workers and delivery drivers.

Kwarteng told the same programme on Thursday: “He was right to say shoppers shouldn’t be panicking.

Empty shelves at a Lidl in Wolverton, Milton Keynes, on Thursday amid the 'pingdemic'. (PA)
Empty shelves at a Lidl in Wolverton, Milton Keynes, on Thursday amid the 'pingdemic'. (PA)

“I don’t quite know what he meant that the government should be panicking, I’m not panicking.”

Of supply shortages, Kwarteng said: “I’ve seen the pictures today and we review the situation. We’re very concerned about some developments. It’s not a universal thing, I don’t want people to get the impression that every shelf in every supermarket is bare – that’s not the case.

“But we are certainly concerned about instances of shortages, we’re looking at the supply chains of critical industries and we’re reviewing that situation.”

Kwarteng said a “very narrow” list of sectors whose workers will be exempt from isolation rules will be published on Thursday, but gave no hint as to whether supermarket workers will be included.

The British Retail Consortium urged ministers to “act fast” to allow fully-vaccinated workers, or those who test negative for Covid, to be exempt from isolation after a “ping” as “the current situation is untenable”.

The government eventually plans to exempt fully-vaccinated people who have come into contact with a Covid-19 carrier from isolation rules.

However, it’s still more than three weeks – 16 August – before this comes into force.

Meanwhile, fuel retailer BP said on Thursday it has temporarily closed several sites because of a shortage of fuel.

It said the main reason was a lack of qualified lorry drivers, while a fuel distribution terminal has been closed for a few days because of the number of people self-isolating.