‘Perfect storm’ What is causing the gaps on supermarket shelves?

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Supermarkets have reassured customers there is no need to panic buy following pictures of half-empty shelves and reports of temporary shortages.

A “perfect storm” of aggravating factors lies behind the problem. What are they and how long will the situation go on for?

The test-and-trace system, aka the ‘pingdemic’

On Thursday the British Retail Consortium (BRC) spoke on behalf of the UK’s supermarkets warning that staff shortages, caused by huge numbers of healthy workers self-isolating after being pinged by NHS Test and Trace, was “putting increasing pressure on retailers’ ability to maintain opening hours and keep shelves stocked”.

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.

Other than supermarkets, staff shortages are being felt in factories, bakeries and meat processing plants. The British Meat Processors’ Association said a shortage of workers has seen some factories struggling to fill one in six roles even before the ‘pingdemic’, which had now forced between 5% and 10% of their workforce to self-isolate.

The lorry driver shortage

Exacerbating supply issues for supermarkets is a shortage of haulage drivers in the UK, with experts warning a “perfect storm” is brewing due to several factors.

The Road Haulage Association (RHA) believes there is a shortfall of about 60,000 drivers after around 30,000 HGV driving tests did not take place last year due to the pandemic.

The managing director of distributor Nationwide Produce, Tim O’Malley, warned last month that the “acute shortage” of HGV drivers was behind “perfectly good, graded and packed fresh produce being dumped or left rotting in cold stores, waiting for wheels to go under it”.

Hauliers blamed the shortage on a large proportion of drivers being foreign nationals from European countries who had returned to the EU, combined with truck drivers not being included on the Government’s list of skilled labour, leaving new arrivals needing immigration paperwork.

The heatwave is not helping

Grocers say the heatwave has led to a run on certain products such as ice lollies, soft drinks, bottled water, beer and salad – normal under the circumstances but difficult to plan for in advance.

Shoppers have reported incidents of shelves being bare of bottled water, for example, but grocers have reassured customers that shortages are isolated and quickly remedied.

How long will the situation go on for and should I think about stocking up?

The BRC says there is no need for the public to be stockpiling. Tesco and Sainsbury’s, the UK’s two biggest supermarket chains, have assured shoppers they have plenty of food and all grocers have urged customers to shop as normal.

However, BRC chief executive Helen Dickinson called on the Government to “act now before the situation does get more serious, so that we don’t see more empty shelves in more places”.

Retailers have started to recruit thousands of temporary staff for the summer. The Government has said certain industries will be able to apply for staff exemptions, but it has yet to publish its guidance.

It has also announced a consultation to allow drivers to take one test to drive articulated and rigid lorries to speed up the process of attaining licences for all types of HGVs.

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