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Brexit and COVID combine to leave supermarket shelves empty in the UK

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By Tadhg Enright with AP
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Empty shelves at the supermarket
Empty shelves at the supermarket   -   Copyright  Euronews
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Brexit and the COVID pandemic are combining to leave some UK supermarket shelves empty, according to the Road Haulage Association.

A shortage of supermarket staff — due to what has been dubbed a 'pingdemic', people called on to self-isolate after coming into contact with a COVID infected person — and lorry drivers are said to be at the heart of the problem.

It’s estimated the UK has 100,000 fewer truck drivers than it needs. Because of Brexit, new drivers from Europe can no longer come to work in the UK as easily as before.

Many went home during the COVID pandemic and have not returned. And while the country was locked down, the training of new drivers stopped.

It means major retailers such as Sainsbury's and Tesco are warning they are unable to keep all their shops stocked in the way they’d want.

"Their [supermarkets'] number of deliveries decrease over the course of a week, so where they might have been getting five, six, seven deliveries a week that might have gone down to four or five," said retail analyst Bryan Roberts.

"Tesco has already noted that it’s had some issues with food waste as it can’t get it through the system fast enough.

"I think we’ll see lots more of these types of issues in the weeks and months ahead because there’s such a shortfall of truck drivers and that will take a long time to remedy because there are thousands that need to be trained."

The government’s solution has been to change the rules to allow drivers to stay on the road for longer.

The problem with extending drivers’ hours is you’re making them more tired and that could make the roads unsafe.

"We need to be encouraging some drivers who have the qualifications but simply aren’t driving to come back into the profession as a sort of emergency measure," said Rod McKenzie of the Road Haulage Association, who wrote an open letter to the government about the problem.

"And yes, we would like to see European drivers lorry drivers allowed back in. Add them to the shortage occupation list and/or give them short term visas to come here and work."

Compounding the issue is a surge in COVID-19 cases across the UK which has resulted in the National Health Service's test and trace app informing hundreds of thousands of people — including Prime Minister Boris Johnson — that they have to self-isolate for 10 days because they've come into contact with someone who has tested positive.

Figures from the NHS on Thursday showed a record 618,903 alerts were sent to users of the app in England and Wales in the week ending July 14.

Faced with staff shortages, several chains have had to temporarily close some of their branches, something they didn't have to do during England's three national lockdowns. But similarly to the first lockdown, they have issued calls not to panic buy.

The British Retail Consortium has meanwhile urged the government to “act fast” and exempt fully-vaccinated workers, or those who test negative for the virus, from the requirements of a "ping."

Changes are expected later Thursday but they won't be substantive with the government currently planning to remove the self-isolate requirement for fully-vaccinated people on August 16.