Businesses are to be told on Thursday whether their staff could qualify for “critical worker” status, enabling them to leave self-isolation in England if they are double-vaccinated to avert major disruption to food supplies.
Overnight, reports and pictures emerged of some empty supermarket shelves, blamed on the hundreds of thousands of people “pinged” or contacted by test and trace and told to stay at home due to the rapidly rising number of Covid cases, which are at their highest level since January 2021. Industries from petrol stations to the postal service have also reported being affected by absences.
Kwasi Kwarteng, the business secretary, said he was “very concerned” by some of the scenes inside shops. He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “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.”
For days, the government has promised to publish further guidance about which firms can ask workers to leave isolation if they are fully inoculated to prevent chaos to councils and companies given the rapidly dwindling workforce they are able to draw on.
The “narrow” list would be released on Thursday, Kwarteng said, suggesting it would not be a list of professions or companies eligible to apply to the government, but rather a breakdown of which sectors would be affected and who among them “might be exempt”.
He did not rule out workers in the food industry, including supermarkets, being eligible, urging people not to panic buy and saying: “I’m not panicking, I’m looking at the evidence.”
Current isolation rules for the majority of the population were not scrapped on 19 July as some expected, meaning that those who have had both Covid jabs must still quarantine if they are identified as a “close contact” of someone who has tested positive for the virus. This has recently included Boris Johnson and the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, after the double-vaccinated health secretary, Sajid Javid, tested positive for Covid.
Kwarteng said that when the rules changed on 16 August that would make an “enormous” difference, helping restore people’s freedoms more and unlocking parts of the economy.
Downing Street said on Tuesday that companies would have to apply directly to the relevant Whitehall department that covers them for authorisation to bring staff back to work, but gave no indication of how long this process would take.
The delay in giving businesses certainty about which workers will qualify for critical worker status was criticised by industry leaders, including the supermarket chain Iceland’s managing director, Richard Walker.
He said his company and others were seeing an “exponential” increase in workers taking time off since 19 July, telling the BBC: “We are taking matters into our own hands in terms of recruitment because we simply don’t have time to wait for the government to sort this out.”
Walkers said that while there was not a crisis in supply right now and “dramatic pictures” in the media represented isolated incidents, a crisis could arise if ministers did not act fast.
“The people who should be panicking are the government and the sooner they clear up this mess and get retail workers and HGV drivers on to the key worker list, the better,” he said.
Andrew Opie, the director of food at the British Retail Consortium trade body, said on Wednesday that staff shortages could have an impact on opening hours and shelf stacking.
“The ongoing ‘pingdemic’ is putting increasing pressure on retailers’ ability to maintain opening hours and keep shelves stocked. Government needs to act fast,” said Opie. “Retail workers and suppliers, who have played a vital role throughout this pandemic, should be allowed to work provided they are double-vaccinated or can show a negative Covid test, to ensure there is no disruption to the public’s ability to get food and other goods.”