Empty supermarket shelves 2021: which UK supermarkets have closed shops amid ‘pingdemic’ staff shortages

The British Retail Consortium (BRC) has urged the Government to change self-isolation guidance for store staff, as ‘increasing pressure’ could cause store closures

In recent days, shoppers in supermarkets across the UK have witnessed sights resembling those seen in stores last April, at the height of the first lockdown.

Aisles of empty shelves and a skeleton staff is creating an increasingly challenging issue for retailers.

However, the issue is not that thousands of shoppers are panic-buying in a bid to prepare for months locked indoors.

Scenes in supermarkets resemble those seen at the height of the pandemic in 2020 (Picture: Getty Images)Scenes in supermarkets resemble those seen at the height of the pandemic in 2020 (Picture: Getty Images)
Scenes in supermarkets resemble those seen at the height of the pandemic in 2020 (Picture: Getty Images)

So, why are the supermarkets not refilling their shelves and how will the problem be resolved? This is what you need to know.

Why are supermarket shelves empty?

Supermarket shelves have begun to run low on household staples such as toilet roll, condiments, dry foods such as pasta and freezer produce.

The issue has been caused by a number of factors, including hundreds of thousands of staff being forced to self-isolate after coming into contact with someone who has contracted Covid.

Empty shelves at a Tesco supermarket in central London on 22 July (Picture: Getty Images)Empty shelves at a Tesco supermarket in central London on 22 July (Picture: Getty Images)
Empty shelves at a Tesco supermarket in central London on 22 July (Picture: Getty Images)

The NHS test and trace app pings people who have been in near contact with someone who had the virus, but this could be hundreds of people per day for those who work in supermarkets.

Another issue the food and retail industry is facing is that there is a lorry driver shortage across the UK at the moment, as HGV driving tests were halted for several months throughout the pandemic and some drivers “going back home” due to Brexit, argues The Road Haulage Association (RHA).

It says there is a shortage of about 60,000 drivers. Tom Cornwell, from the RHA, says the driver shortage is "going to be dire" for reasons such as many European drivers returning to their home countries over the past 18 months.

Due to the lack of stock and inability to get stock on shelves quickly enough due to lack of staff, shoppers have begun buying items in stock which have a long shelf life or are essentials to get by.

The issues have caused supermarkets, such as Tesco and Asda, failing to keep shelves full and customers raising concerns about the lack of toilet roll, freezer fruit and vegetable, bottled water and fresh produce.

What response has retailers given for the shortages?

Iceland Managing Director Richard Walker said photographs of empty shelves in supermarkets were "isolated incidents,” but that the government had to make it clearer what staff in food shops were expected to do if pinged.

It comes as frozen food stores struggle to cope with the increasing number of staff being required to self-isolate, while shoppers panic buy frozen goods.

Walker said there was no need to panic buy as it was “unnecessary,” but admitted the rising number of retail workers affected means there is a risk of needing to shut shops.

Iceland is recruiting staff on a temporary basis to counteract the increasing staff absence levels.

The Co-op confirmed it was "running low on some products", due to being impacted "by some patchy disruption to our deliveries and store operations,".

Lidl also said the staff shortages were proving to be a challenge, but added “our teams are working hard to minimise any disruption to customers.”

How could the problem be solved?

Leading experts in the retail and food industry have advised that staff in essential stores should be treated the same as NHS workers, not being required to self isolate if they are pinged.

Andrew Opie, director of food & sustainability at the BRC, said: “The ongoing ‘pingdemic’ is putting increasing pressure on retailers’ ability to maintain opening hours and keep shelves stocked.

Government needs to act fast. 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.

“With community cases soaring, the number of healthy retail staff having to self-isolate is rising fast, disrupting retail operations.”

Nick Allen, British Meat Processors Association chief executive, reiterated Mr Opie’s comments, adding that the government had sent out “confusing messages” about the rules of test and trace.

Mr Allen said that shortage of skills and workers was reaching “critically high level’, with vacancies already high prior to increased staff isolations.

He said: “We’ve heard reports of plants having between 10% and 16% vacancies even before absenteeism due to Covid is factored-in,” adding: “we’re also hearing from some members that between 5% and 10% of their workforce have been ‘pinged’ by the app and asked to self-isolate.”

Business Secretary Kwasi Kwateng said the government was "concerned about instances of shortages,” but that the message for now was that staff should continue to isolate if pinged.

He said the government would iron out more guidance later today, adding: "I don't want people to get the impression that every shelf in every supermarket is bare - that is not the case but we are certainly concerned about instances of shortages, we are looking at the supply chains of critical industries and we are reviewing that situation.”