The "pingdemic" of workers being told to self-isolate by the NHS app is wreaking chaos across the country, with supermarkets and pubs forced to close and reports of food shortages in some areas.
Factories have been forced to shut early, train services have been delayed or cancelled and bank branches have closed their doors due to a lack of staff.
Recent figures showed more than 500,000 people in England and Wales were "pinged" by the app in the week to July 7 – up 46 per cent on the previous week.
Greene King has been forced to shut 33 pubs in the past week after staff were told to isolate by the app, while other venues have had to shorten their hours. Young’s reported last week that around 350 of its staff were isolating.
Nick Mackenzie, the chief executive of Greene King, which runs 2,500 pubs, hotels and restaurants, called on the Government to expand its test and release scheme to allow staff who test negative for Covid to return to work after being "pinged".
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: "This is a problem and I think it could get worse. It is disruptive to the business."
Over half a million 'pinged' at start of July
Ross Robinson, whose Red Fox and Peacock group employs about 320 staff across five pubs, two restaurants and a bar, said up to a quarter of his staff have been off at any one stage over the last three weeks after being told to self-isolate.
"The heartbreaking element is we could and should be able to help ourselves recover, but our hands are tied due to the app and other factors that are against us," he said.
He estimated that 90 to 95 per cent of his workers pinged by the app do not go on to test positive for Covid.
Supermarkets have been forced to shut because of a shortage of staff, while shelves were empty in some areas.
"We have just announced employing an additional 2,000 people on top of that to give us a deeper pool of labour as so many people are now getting pinged," Richard Walker, the boss of the Iceland chain, told the BBC. Iceland has 1,000 people absent due to the virus – the highest since the pandemic began.
"A number of stores have had to close and the concern is that as this rises exponentially it could get a lot worse, a lot quicker," Mr Walker added. "We have got a 50 per cent increase week-on-week in terms of people off, and a 400 per cent increase compared to mid-June."
He joined calls for a test and release system so that workers can go back to work after testing negative.
Rival supermarket chain Morrison said it was "experiencing a rise in cases and close contact notifications" although it had not so far needed to close a store.
Shoppers in some areas including Bromyard, Herefordshire, where bread deliveries have been cancelled, reported empty shelves.
In Manchester and Birmingham, almost one in three retail workers are self-isolating, industry insiders estimate.
A spokesman for Logistics UK said the solitary nature of goods vehicles drivers’ work meant they are less exposed to infection. However the trade group said high levels of pings among warehouse workers could have an impact on food supplies.
Andrew Lloyd Webber criticised the self-isolation rules following the cancellation of performances of his West End show Cinderella.
In a statement, he said the "blunt instrument that is the Government’s isolation guidance" meant Monday’s performance had been cancelled. "Freedom Day has turned into closure day," he added.
Lord Lloyd-Webber previously announced plans to stage a Freedom Day show on Monday, with proceeds donated to St John Ambulance and the NHS. Two performances had already been cancelled over the weekend.
He said a "rigorous" testing programme identified a positive case among the show’s cast but other members had since tested negative, adding: "We have been forced into a devastating decision which will affect the lives and livelihoods of hundreds of people and disappoint the thousands who have booked to see the show."
Andrew Lloyd Webber with cast and crew members of Cinderella
Credit: Andrew Lloyd Webber/PA
A spokesman for the production told the BBC: "It’s hard to see a route forward under the current rules, but we will do everything we can to come back."
Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden said he was "deeply disappointed" to hear about the cancellations, adding: "Whilst the need to self-isolate is an economy-wide issue, I recognise the particular challenges it presents to the arts and I’m strongly making the case for that in government."
It came after Sir Kenneth Branagh’s theatre company axed a production after Covid cases and pings prevented cast members from attending rehearsals.
The Browning Version had been due to open at the Riverside Studios next month, with proceeds going to charity, but its producers said its actors had been "robbed" of rehearsal time and the show would not proceed.
Workers often being in close proximity around machinery or manufactured products means Britain’s factories are being hit hard by the "pingdemic".
The automotive sector has been particularly hit, with car plants already affected by social distancing requirements being forced to reduce output even further as staff go into isolation.
On Monday, Vauxhall’s Luton van plant – which in May announced it was adding a third shift to meet demand, with 1,500 staff working there – confirmed that night shifts were being halted because of the employees being pinged.
Last week, Nissan said about 900 staff at its giant Sunderland plant had been told to isolate – about 15 per cent of the total employees.
Manufacturing trade group MakeUK said a straw poll over the weekend among its member firms reported up to a fifth of staff off because they had been ordered to isolate. The group fears that, without action, stoppages could deliver a serious blow to the UK economy.
The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders wants the sensitivity of the app to be changed, or the August 16 target date for exempting fully-vaccinated adults from self-isolation to be brought forward.
Banks including Virgin Money and Metro Bank are among those forced to temporarily shut branches as a result of self-isolation rules and high Covid cases keeping people at home.
Staff shortages have meant banks have had to redeploy staff or close for up to five days at a time. Metro Bank closed its London Moorgate branch over the weekend, its quietest time of the week, so it could send staff to busier branches struggling with shortages.
However, the number of branch closures has not yet become a significant burden for the sector, leaving industry lobby groups focusing their efforts elsewhere for the time being.
Bruce Carnegie-Brown, the chairman of Lloyd’s of London and vice chairman of Santander, said the insurance and banking sectors are in "a luckier place" than other industries as most workers can do the job from home.
Councils are suspending garden waste collections because of staff shortages. As virus cases and the numbers self-isolating rise, authorities have announced temporary suspensions of green waste collections, which they do not have a legal duty to provide, to concentrate on collecting rubbish and recycling.
There is also an ongoing HGV driver shortage, which has been blamed on the pandemic and Brexit and which has affected waste collection rounds.
Doncaster Council said Suez, its waste and recycling contractor, has a significant number of staff who have tested positive or are having to self-isolate, and the HGV driver shortage means agency workers are not available.
Mark Houlbrook, the authority’s portfolio holder for sustainability and waste, said: "It is a balancing act to safeguard everyone’s safety against the risks of Covid-19 and making sure the bins are collected. However, as we have fewer staff members, this will mean that black and blue [recycling] bin collections will be prioritised."