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The Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng has said he is “concerned” about reported food supply issues but urged shoppers not to “panic”.
The cabinet minister confirmed a list of new exemptions to the self-isolation rules would be published later today in a bid to tackle “concerning” food shortages seen in some parts of the country.
It comes amid growing reports of gaps on supermarket shelves caused by disruption to supply chains as the so-called “pingdemic” has forced hundreds of thousands of people in England into self-isolation.
Retail bosses have already urged the government to act quickly as they warned supply chains are “starting to fail” due to staff absences.
But speaking to the BBC’s Today programme, Kwarteng urged people to continue following the rules if pinged by the NHS Covid app.
“The vast majority of people are self-isolating. That is why it is called the ‘pingdemic’,” he said.
“People are following the rules, they are getting pinged and they are self-isolating, largely, and I would strongly recommend they continue to do that.”
Kwarteng addressed alaraming pictures of empty supermarket shelves that featured in many of the UK’s major newspapers today, believed to be as a result of supply chains disrupted by staff self-isolating.
“I’ve seen the pictures today, as I have said, we review the situation. We are very concerned about some developments, he said.
“It is not a universal thing, 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 certain critical industries, and we are reviewing that situation.”
Kwarteng confirmed new guidance would be published later today which could provide exemptions for some sectors, similar to changes made during the first wave of the virus which allowed key workers to avoid lockdown rules.
“We went through this last year, and we went through a similar process, and in fact, last year it took a little longer to come up with the guidance on exempt workers and it was a subject of great debate in the government,” he said.
Speaking earlier on the programme, Richard Walker, managing director of Iceland supermarkets insisted there was no major supply issues as he urged people not to begin “panic buying”.
“We certainly don’t want to go back to the dark days of April 2020, because panic buying is only an option for those who can afford it and it often means others go without,” he said.
“Our supply chains are resilient, yes, we do have some availability issues which are probably as bad as they have been over the last year, but there is enough to go around.”
He added: “The dramatic pictures you might have seen in the media are isolated incidents and not widespread.
“The people who should be panicking are the government, and I believe the sooner they clear up this mess and get retail workers and HGV drivers onto the key worker list, the better.”
Responding to the comments, Kwarteng insisted the government were acting with urgency to tackle the problem but were “not panicking”.
“He was right to say that shoppers shouldn’t be panicking but I don’t quite know what he meant by the government should be panicking,” he said.
“I am not panicking, I am looking at the evidence, at the data.
“We have set out very clear rules. Whatever we had said would have been under attack, and that is fair enough.”
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