Covid-19: Northern Ireland retailers fear threat of supply problems and staff absences, but advise consumers not to panic

Widespread staff absences due to the rapid spread of the omicron Covid variant could have knock-on impacts on supply chains and deprive the public of “the full product range” in shops in Northern Ireland, an industry expert has warned.

By Niall Deeney
Monday, 3rd January 2022, 12:01 am
Updated Monday, 3rd January 2022, 8:10 am

The Cabinet Office in London has claimed that, so far, disruption caused by omicron across the UK has been controlled in “most parts of the public sector”.

But it said public sector leaders have been asked to test plans against “worst case scenarios” of 10%, 20% and 25% workforce absence rates.

Glyn Roberts, chief executive of Retail NI, said absence rates are already having an impact across the supply chain.

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A sign in Belfast city centre reminding customers to wear face coverings

He warned that while shop closures are unlikely, he “couldn’t rule it out” in the coming weeks as he urged the public not to begin “panic buying and stockpiling”.

Speaking to the News Letter, Mr Roberts said: “There’s no doubt that the significant amount of staff absences due to isolation is impacting right across the supply chain [already].

“We do have worries for smaller, independent retailers with, say, four or five staff seeing staff testing positive and having to isolate.

“Obviously, it’s harder to deal with if you have a smaller staff like that.”

People in Belfast city centre walk past a sign advertising January sales

Last week, the Northern Ireland Executive moved to reduce the period of self-isolation required for those who contract the virus from 10 days to seven – provided the person tests negative using lateral flow tests on days six and seven.

Mr Roberts said the move would “take the edge off” the staff shortages, but warned it remains “a very challenging situation”.

He continued: “Obviously, it’s imperative that we keep as many shops open as possible.

“It’s certainly a very significant challenge. I’m not aware of many stores having to close, as yet, but it is certainly getting harder for many of them to keep going with a significant amount of staff absences.

“I wouldn’t want to speculate as to what is going to happen in the next few weeks, but it is a growing concern.”

With most experts predicting further increases in the coming weeks of the already record infection levels fuelled by the omicron variant, Mr Roberts was asked if frequent shop closures could be on the horizon.

“I don’t anticipate that stores will close, but you couldn’t rule it out,” he said.

“It’s hard to know what the overall picture will be.”

Asked how the supply chain is being impacted, Mr Roberts said: “Our membership comes from right across the supply chain – retailers, suppliers, wholesalers. The supply chain is all interlinked so if one part of it goes down it impacts on the whole, so ultimately we would then be in a situation where consumers would not have access to the full product range.

“I think our members can meet the challenge, particularly in our independent retailers who are probably some of the most innovative, dynamic businesses. I have every confidence they will meet this challenge head-on.”

Addressing customers, he said: “Continue to shop as normal and obey the rules. Don’t panic buy, don’t stockpile, and shop as normal as possible. There’s no evidence of that [panic buying and stockpiling] at the moment. I don’t think that’s going to happen.”

Meanwhile, the hospitality industry is also feeling the pressure when it comes to staff absence rates.

Colin Neill, chief executive of Hospitality Ulster, said: “Pre-Christmas, we had already seen the impact with close contacts having to self isolate, and even people having difficulty getting a test.

“We are a people industry and, therefore, it’s obviously going to bring challenges.

“We have already seen places close because they don’t have enough to stay open.”

Mr Neill also had a message for customers: “If you go into premises and service is a bit slow, please give them a bit of a break because they are likely running on reduced staff with more pressure on the staff that are there.”

In recent days, there have been concerns about supply issues with lateral flow tests. This followed earlier concerns surrounding delays for those seeking PCR Covid tests.

Mr Neill said solving test supply issues could help alleviate staff absence problems: “I appreciate the numbers associated with the new variant is putting pressure everywhere, but the government need to step up.”

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