Supermarkets began cancelling home deliveries on Thursday as businesses across the country mounted a rebellion against the growing "pingdemic".
Shoppers were told by supermarkets including Tesco that their orders could not be fulfilled due to the high number of staff pinged by the NHS Test and Trace app.
Senior Tories called for the Government to consider bringing in the Army to help get deliveries moving as shelves in some areas were empty of basic supplies including bottled water, vegetables and deodorant.
Industry leaders and the Government insisted there was still "plenty of food" in the supply chain, adding that there was no need for a repeat of the panic buying seen during the first wave of the Covid pandemic.
However, Tesco faced complaints from shoppers on Thursday that home deliveries had been cancelled by text only hours before the orders had been due to arrive.
One wrote on social media: "My 100-year-old dad’s Tesco delivery has been cancelled at the last minute due to insufficient manpower because too many Tesco staff have been pinged by the NHS app." Another complained: "I’ve had a text saying my delivery for tonight has been cancelled due to ‘store issues’."
A Tesco spokesman said: "Our stores will take the decision to cancel orders where they are unable to fulfil the order. This is not a decision that is made easily."
The Co-op said it was "running low on some products", while Sainsbury’s said it "might not always" have the exact goods people wanted but insisted the shortages were not widespread.
Empty shelves on the soft drinks aisle of a Sainsbury's in Rowley Regis in the West Midlands
Credit: Matthew Cooper/PA
Shortages in the fruit and veg section of an Asda store in Cardiff
Credit: Matthew Horwood/Getty Images Europe
Shelves stand empty in a Lidl store in Milton Keynes
Credit: @Gramblera/Twitter/ PA
Meanwhile, businesses began rebelling against government guidance by allowing staff pinged by the app to return to work after testing negative for Covid.
James Bielby, the chief executive of the Federation of Wholesale Distributors, said the practice of circumventing pings by conducting daily Covid tests was "definitely widespread" among his members.
"Businesses are saying if you’re double-jabbed, take a test and if it’s negative every day continue to work. It’s the only way forward in the absence of anything else," he told The Telegraph.
"You have to get food and drinks out to hospitals, prisons, care homes. They [wholesalers] need clear advice – in the meantime, they’re doing what is the sensible thing to do."
Andrew Selley, the chief executive of Bidfood, one of the UK’s largest food distribution wholesalers, defended the approach as "appropriate and safe" and said his delivery drivers were "critical workers".
"If they are pinged we ask them to take a PCR test. If that’s positive then clearly they’ll isolate, but if it’s negative we ask them to come back to work and we have a process of doing lateral flow tests daily away from their workplace, and if that’s negative they can proceed with their work," he said.
Mr Selley said 100 staff from around 20 depots across the country were off isolating on Wednesday, presenting a "real challenge" with deliveries late or even being delivered the next day.
Informed that his testing programme was contrary to government advice, he told the BBC: "We think that’s appropriate and safe. The ping is advisory."
Over half a million 'pinged' at start of July
Earlier this week, hospitality businesses were privately told by the Government to treat pings as advisory, although Downing Street later insisted firms should support workers to self-isolate.
Despite the apparent U-turn, one senior industry source said many pubs, bars and restaurants had since informed staff that they could ignore the ping and return to work as long as they tested negative.
Martin Greenhow, the owner of the Mojo chain of cocktail bars, said he had decided to breach government guidance after losing tens of thousands of pounds when one his bars was forced to close down. Every member of staff had been alerted by the NHS app after they left their phones together while working, he added.
Since then, Mojo staff had been given "the option" to return to work during their self-isolation period while undergoing regular lateral flow tests.
"We ask them to behave in a grown-up, adult manner, which I think the Government should expect the entire country to do and stop trying to nanny them," Mr Greenhow said.
It came as Rod McKenzie, the managing director of policy at the Road Haulage Association, described the worsening shortage of lorry drivers in the UK as "a recipe for chaos", while Tobias Ellwood MP, the chairman of the Commons defence committee, called on ministers to consider bringing in the Army to help get supplies moving.
"The urgency of staff shortages now impacting on supermarkets and by extension national food distribution warrants a Cobra meeting for which the deployment of the Army to assist in HGV driver shortfall should be a last resort option considered," Mr Ellwood said.
Whitehall sources said there were "no plans" to bring in troops to ease the shortages.
Helen Dickinson, the chief executive of the British Retail Consortium, urged shoppers not to panic buy food and basic essentials.
"There’s plenty of food in the country," she said. "What we’re seeing is pockets of issues in specific places where case numbers are particularly high, and the most important thing is that the Government acts now before the situation does get more serious, so that we don’t see more empty shelves in more places."
Kwasi Kwarteng, the Business Secretary, said the Government was "concerned about instances of shortages", adding: "I don’t want people to get the impression that every shelf in every supermarket is bare – that is not the case, but we are looking at the supply chains of critical industries and we are reviewing that situation."
Asked whether the Government had "lost the battle" over ordering workers to stay at home, he replied: "I don’t think we have. People are following the rules, they are getting pinged and self isolating, largely. I would strongly recommend they continue to do that."