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Supermarkets and hauliers struggling with 'higher than normal' rates of staff shortages

Amid industry pressure, the Taoiseach said NPHET will keep the isolation period for close contacts under review.

Image: Sam Boal

WITH THOUSANDS OF workers across the economy out sick with Covid-19 or restricting their movements having been named a close contact of a confirmed case, major supermarket chains and haulage companies are coping with staff shortages this week.

Speaking on RTÉ Radio 1′s News at One programme earlier today, Director of Membership and Sectors at employer’s group Ibec Sharon Higgins said the issues are particularly acute in the manufacturing and distribution sectors. 

However, she added, “We’re seeing this everywhere at the moment. It’s right around the country and it’s in all sectors of the economy as well. It’s endemic”.

Both the retail and haulage sectors were already experiencing skills shortages, which the current wave of infections is exacerbating, industry voices say.

Yesterday Jonathan Hogan, assistant general secretary of trade union Mandate — which represents 40,000 workers in the retail, pub and administrative sectors — told The Journal the current wave of infections is having an impact on staffing in supermarkets and “right across the retail sector”.

This afternoon, Musgrave Group, — which owns the SuperValu and Centra chains — and Tesco Ireland have told The Journal they are dealing with lower numbers of available workers due to the current wave of Covid-19 infections.

A spokesperson for Musgrave told The Journal, “In line with the increase in community transmission and the experience of many other parts of society, public and private, SuperValu stores nationwide are currently experiencing higher than normal rates of staff shortages related to Covid-19.

“The health, safety and wellbeing of our employees and customers is our highest priority and our stores are working hard to ensure we continue to provide the best service possible.

“We thank everyone for their patience and support and apologise for any inconvenience customers have experienced.”

A spokesperson for Tesco Ireland said there is no need for panic buying, that its supermarkets are well supplied, and there is “plenty of stock to go round” at the moment.

“We’ve worked extensively with our suppliers to support them and minimise disruption where possible, so we’d encourage our customers not to change their shopping habits at this time,” they said.

However, the spokesperson added, “The safety of our colleagues and customers is our number one priority. We, like all sectors, have seen an increase in Covid-related absence in recent days and continue to monitor the situation closely.”

Lidl Ireland, meanwhile, said there had been no store closures or amended trading hours due to staffing shortages.

“Since April 2021 Lidl employees have been able to avail of weekly free antigen tests, which have been instrumental in keeping our stores safe places to work and shop,” a spokesperson said.

“On the supply side, we have been working very closely with our suppliers to minimise disruption to the supply chain and to date have no issues on the availability of food.”

Close contacts

Truckers also say they’re feeling the pinch and have called on the Government to review the close contact rules.

Eugene Drennan, president of the Irish Road Haulage Association and owner of Drennan Transport, told The Irish Independent that up to 10% of his staff are currently out as a result of the close contact rules. Ger Hyland of Hyland Transport, meanwhile, told Newstalk radio that between 20 and 30% of his drivers are out because they have Covid or were named as close contacts.

Speaking to The Journal todayAidan Flynn, general manager of the Freight Transport Association, said the situation varies from haulage company to company but that the representative body’s members are dealing with the crisis as best they can.

“It’s no different than the broader industry experience, to be honest, he said.

“The one luxury I suppose from a commercial driver perspective is that they’re lone workers — they tend to be spending most of their time in the cab of their truck on their own.”

Flynn said that for the industry, it’s been “one issue after another” over the past couple of years between driver shortages and supply chain issues.

He added that the current situation is “just another in the long line of issues that the industry has been able to cope with today in general. So we’re just getting on with the best we can”.

Isolation period

Amid concern about the impact of worker shortages on businesses and supply chains, lobby groups — including employer’s group Ibec — have called for the isolation period for close contacts of confirmed cases to be reduced from 10 days down to five.

Yesterday, The Journal reported that the Government will ask Chief Medical Officer Dr Tony Holohan to consider relaxing the isolation rules for fully vaccinated close contacts of confirmed cases of Covid-19.

Speaking to reporters today, Taoiseach Micheál Martin said the CMO and the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET), which meets tomorrow, will keep the isolation rules under review.

“They’re very conscious of the impact of all of this on society but the key call here, of course, is not to do something too quickly that could risk accelerating even further the exponential growth of the virus,” he added.

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Ibec’s Higgins said today, “Our call is, rather than companies having to implement significant contingency plans, that the close contact requirements are reviewed again.”

But trade unions have urged caution given the unpredictability of the public health situation and the potential threat to their members’ safety from Covid-19.

“Congress is acutely aware of the surging numbers of Covid-19 infections and the knock-on effect of requiring tens of thousands of workers to self-isolate as close contacts,” Irish Congres of Trade Unions General Secretary Patricia King said in a statement earlier this week.

“Any amendment to isolation restrictions for close contacts must be guided first and foremost by public health advice.”

She added, “We have to continue to be cautious in our approach to any moderation of these rules given the acceleration of cases and the unremitting strain on our health services and healthcare workforce”.

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