Pinging hell: NHS Covid app causing widespread staff shortages | Business

Industry leaders are demanding the government tackle widespread staff shortages caused by workers self-isolating en masse after being “pinged” by NHS test and trace.

Online fashion retailer Asos joined carmakers Nissan and Rolls-Royce on a fast-growing roster of businesses wrestling with disruption caused by absent staff on Thursday.

From 16 August those who have received both doses of a vaccine, or are under 18, will not have to self-isolate if they come into contact with someone who has tested for positive for Covid-19.

But parts of the economy are at risk of shutting down long before then, industry leaders have warned, amid predictions that rising case numbers could force more than 1 million people to stay at home.

The problem is particularly acute in retail, hospitality and manufacturing, where only a limited number of employees can work from home, leading to significant disruption or, in some cases, site closures.


Industry insiders say up to 30% of staff are absent in some parts of the country, while the average across retail is closer to 10%.

Distribution centres, head offices and stores are all suffering from staffing issues caused by NHS test-and-trace alerts.

On Thursday, the boss of online fashion seller Asos, Nick Beighton, said there had been “a lot of test and trace pinging” happening at the group’s London head office and at its distribution centre in Barnsley.

“It is very frustrating for staff and for us. Even people who have been double jabbed are having to self-isolate,” he said.

The comments came after Richard Walker, the boss of the Iceland grocery chain, said that staff absences linked to coronavirus were “growing exponentially” while Sainsbury’s reported an “uptick in absence” in recent weeks.

Another industry insider said less than 10% of their staff were currently self-isolating but the business feared this could rise to 30% within a matter of weeks.

Yet another said it was a “big problem” as absentee levels had soared in recent weeks from a combination of people being pinged by the NHS app or getting ill.

At least one major supermarket chain is understood to have encountered serious difficulties at their distribution centre as a result of staff needing to self-isolate.

Retailers are also struggling to keep stock flowing as problems with self isolation are exacerbating staff shortages caused by Brexit and Covid-related travel restrictions at food processing plants, farms and delivery firms.


In the past 24 hours, Nissan and luxury carmaker Rolls-Royce have confirmed that they are facing difficulties due to staff absence.

A spokesperson for BMW-owned Rolls-Royce said it was still running at full production at its plant in Goodwood but was “reaching a somewhat critical point” at which one shift would have to stop, halving production.

Nissan said areas of its Sunderland plant, which employs 6,000 people, had already been “adjusted” due to staff self-isolating.

“The wellbeing of our team is our number one priority and we remain confident in the rigorous safety controls we have on site,” said a spokesperson.

Manufacturing industry sources said other companies are also suffering but don’t want to say so publicly for fear of spooking customers and losing business.

Industrial trade body Make UK said a growing number of its members were suffering a hit to production, with up to 20% of staff in isolation, and urged the government to rethink the August date at which rules will be eased, as an “immediate priority”.

The Make UK chief executive, Stephen Phipson, said the situation was “likely to get far worse with the lifting of restrictions next week”.

Trade union Unite has said some factories are already critically short of staff.


Pubs, bars and restaurants are badly affected because staff come into contact with so many people.

Up to 20% of the industry’s workforce is in isolation, according to trade body UK Hospitality, which warned that could rise to one in three within weeks. Its chief executive, Kate Nicholls, has called for the government to consider allowing staff who test negative to keep working.

In the meantime, a raft of restaurants, bars and breweries from around the country have reported having to close their doors or reduce hours due to sudden staff shortages.

The UK’s largest pub company, Stonegate, has said that 1,000 staff are off and 15 of its 4,800 sites are closed, while Greene King, which has 2,700 pubs, is also understood to be struggling to keep all of its pubs open.

Other affected businesses include 173-strong cafe and bar chain Loungers, St Austell Brewery in Cornwall, London-based steak and cocktails chain Hawksmoor and Oxfordshire pub and brewing company Brakspear.