Retail bosses have urged shoppers not to stockpile and said there is “plenty of food” as supermarkets have been hit by a “perfect storm” of self-isolating workers and prior staff shortages.
Supermarkets, such as the Co-op, said they are facing availability issues with some products, but stressed that shortages are “patchy” across stores.
Helen Dickinson, chief executive of the British Retail Consortium (BRC), said shop supplies are holding up but said Government action is needed immediately to avoid further empty shelves.
“I don’t think there is any need for members of the public to be stockpiling what they buy,” she said.
“There is plenty of food in the country.
“What we are seeing is pockets of issues in specific places where case numbers are particularly high and the most important thing is that the Government acts now before the situation does get more serious, so we don’t see more empty shelves in more places.”
The trade body chief said issues have been caused by a “perfect storm” consisting of “summer labour shortages in the lead up to the reopening of the economy … and more and more people being asked to self-isolate.”
Earlier in the day, Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng said a “very narrow” list of sectors whose workers will be exempt from isolation rules would be published later on Thursday.
He said he would not “pre-empt” the details when asked if the food industry would be on it, following pleas from the sector.
Grocers have also said a shortage of HGV drivers and the hot weather were all contributing to delivery glitches.
Ms Dickinson added: “However, the ‘pingdemic’ is the biggest issue that retailers are mentioning to me.
“What we don’t want to see is the situation we faced during the early part of last year.
“As a minimum what we are looking for is that food business right across the supply chain are included and that they put in place a test and release scheme which will enable critical workers within those businesses to continue to work as needed.”
A Co-op spokesman said: “We are sorry that we are running low on some products. Like many retailers, we are impacted by some patchy disruption to our deliveries and store operations but we are working closely with our suppliers to get re-stocked quickly.”
A Sainsbury’s spokeswoman said: “We are working hard to ensure customers can find what they need.
“While we might not always have the exact product a customer is looking for in every store, large quantities of products are being delivered to stores daily and our colleagues are focused on getting them on to the shelves as quickly as they can.”
Iceland managing director Richard Walker has said staff absence rates are now double the usual number, with the figure rising 50% “week on week” due to people being told to self-isolate by the NHS app.
Mr Walker told the Radio 4’s Today programme: “We’ve now got over 1,000 staff off, who’ve been pinged. That’s double the normal rates, and it’s rising at 50% week on week.”
He also urged shoppers not to panic buy, saying: “There is certainly no problem with supply of stock.
“Panic-buying is only an option for those who can afford it and it often means that others go without.”
Elsewhere, sandwich chain Pret A Manger has temporarily closed 17 shops due to staff being forced to self-isolate.
Fuel retailer BP said it had closed several sites temporarily because of a shortage of fuel.
But it stressed the main reason was a lack of qualified lorry drivers, although a fuel distribution terminal has been closed for a few days because of the number of people self-isolating.
In a statement, BP said: “We are experiencing some fuel supply issues at some of our retail sites in the UK and unfortunately have therefore seen a handful of sites temporarily close due to a lack of both unleaded and diesel grades. However, the vast majority of these temporary issues are being resolved within a day.”
The Petrol Retailers Association (PRA), which represents 5,500 independent fuel retailers, said the Government announcement to exclude critical workers from self-isolation requirements if they have been double vaccinated should be extended to forecourt workers.
PRA executive director Gordon Balmer said: “We are well aware of supply issues in shops, primarily as a result of workers who are part of the supply chain including terminal staff, tanker drivers and forecourt staff who have contracted Covid-19 or, more often, pinged to self-isolate.
Mr Balmer added: “It is important that forecourts are able to be properly staffed given the crucial role they play in keeping the country moving and ensuring that emergency services are kept refuelled.
“During previous lockdowns, filling stations were identified as essential services. We are now requesting that officials at BEIS and DHSC confirm this same status for our members in the list of exemptions.”
The PRA also said that petrol stations are also experiencing increased demand for fuel due to holidaymakers “staycationing” around the country.
The British Independent Retailers Association (Bira) warned it was “more than likely” that smaller shops would be forced to close if staff were told to isolate.
Bira chief executive Andrew Goodacre told PA: “If small independent retailers – or their staff – are ‘pinged’ it is more than likely the business will have to shut.
“In a small shop, if one member of staff tests positive it is likely that nearly all that team will be deemed to be in close contact, including the owner.
“And this comes at a time when they are in a process of rebuilding their business after many months of closure, with little or no income.”