Government pingdemic response chaos

London, UK: The logistics industry remain unimpressed by government efforts to deal with the self-isolation “pingdemic” describing the measures as “chaotic” and “too late”.

The number of people being sent NHS app alerts to self-isolate rapidly rose throughout July as infection rates soared, reaching a record 600,000 in the week to 14 July.

The government has said that some double-vaccinated staff at certain organisations deemed critical would be allowed to take tests to keep coming to work, rather than self-isolating.

On Sunday, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said it had now contacted 500 sites that had been identified for daily contact testing.

Testing is rolling-out to key manufacturing, food processing and wholesale sites of the food supply chain, which will be joining large supermarket depots as part of the initial phase of the testing programme.
The number of roles that are exempt from isolation has been widened to include roles such as forklift drivers and dispatchers.

Senior staff in the food and logistics industry said the measures had been so badly mishandled and poorly communicated that they had made the crisis worse. The government’s response has been “very chaotic” and “too late”, said James Bielby, chief executive of the Federation of Wholesale Distribution. A policy for exemptions was announced on Monday, but that there were no further details given until Thursday, he said.

Many food businesses were still in the dark as to whether their staff could be included in the scheme, he added, with only 15 supermarket distribution centres with staff on the list on Friday.

Shane Brennan, chief executive, Cold Chain Federation, said: “Several days after the prime minister told us the food supply chain was critical and would be exempt, we still don’t have a definitive list of who will be exempt and what is required of them. Businesses are fighting to keep food on shelves, and I regret that despite the best intentions in some places, government has done more harm than good.

“We are living day-by-day. Those businesses that can work are doing their absolute best. But no one feels confident predicting what will happen tomorrow and few have confidence that those in charge have a grip on the situation.”

“The process for getting on the list is entirely opaque,” Bielby said. Government seemed to be making up the policy “on the hoof” in response to media reports.

Putting in place testing instead of self-isolation would have been better three weeks ago, Bielby said, but now it was “too late” – especially as self-isolation is supposed to ease in three weeks’ time.

He added that the “pingdemic” had been “really bad” for the food supply chain, as entire production lines in factories and entire driver fleets had been “taken out”.

There was already a shortage of lorry drivers because of a combination of factors including Brexit, the Covid pandemic and changes to self-employment taxation, he said.

Brennan said the “pingdemic” had been a greater challenge for businesses than Covid itself. “You can deal with problems as long as you have people working,” Mr Brennan said. “The problem with the ‘pingdemic’ is that it takes lots of people out of the workforce.”

There are already rolling shortages of stock in supermarkets, and supply businesses are “fighting to keep food on the shelves”, he said. However, the application process for getting staff exemptions for self-isolation was “way too complicated” and came too late.

In addition, government departments did not appear to be working in a unified way. “It’s quite obvious that the government is having an argument with itself [over self-isolation],” he said.

British Frozen Food Federation chief executive Richard Harrow said ministers had failed to grasp how the food supply industry worked: “It shows that yet again government does not understand how connected the food supply chain is. Only opening part is unlikely to solve the overall issue.”

Clare Bottle, chief executive, UK Warehousing Association, said: “During the earlier phases of the Covid-19 pandemic logistics workers, including warehouse workforces, benefitted from “essential worker” status, which helped our members and the wider logistics community to maintain critical supply chains, including food and pharmaceutical supplies. We believe that exemption from self-isolation should now apply to this sector by default, which would be in line with the earlier position of the government and straight forward to implement.”

For a guide on which workers have to isolate see the BBC help page.

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In the August issue of Cold Chain News, out now, Gist reveals that it is offering incentives of up to £5,000 for HGV drivers to join its business from August in order to boost capability and resources to deliver chilled foods and fresh produce. bit.ly/3z6j8Si #coldchain

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