A SUPERMARKET boss has said it has been forced to shut shops and reduce hours in what is ‘quite a serious situation’.

Richard Walker, managing director of Iceland, told Radio 4’s Today Programme they have over 1,000 staff off who have been ‘pinged’.

He said staff absence rates are now double the usual number, with the figure rising 50 per cent week on week as more people are told to self-isolate by the NHS app.

He said: “Our big concern is that we’ve kept all of our shops open throughout the pandemic, but now we have had to close one or two shops and reduce hours in others.

“But that could get a lot worse a lot quicker, unless the country’s system is sorted out.”

Mr Walker urged shoppers not to panic-buy, saying: “There is certainly no problem with supply of stock.

“Panic-buying is only an option for those who can afford it and it often means that others go without.”

The managing director of the frozen food chain has urged the Government to come up with a key worker list that would allow food supply chain staff to avoid self-isolation even if they get pinged by the NHS Track and Trace app.

Richard Walker told Radio 4’s Today programme: “We’re in quite a serious situation that we need to sort out quickly.

“Just like at the start of the pandemic when (the Government) came up with a keyworkers list, why can’t we do that now?”

Mr Walker continued: “We are taking matters into our own hands in terms of recruitment because we simply don’t have time to wait for the Government to sort this out, therefore we’re recruiting 2,000 new workers.

“These aren’t permanent jobs, they’re temporary jobs, but that’s to give us a deeper pool of labour to prepare ourselves for the exponential rise in pinging.

“Now, the Government says it wants to make sure that critical services can function well. I believe we are a critical service and we’re going to struggle to function.”

Mr Walker told Good Morning Britain that there is a ‘pingdemic’ which means it’s difficult for shops to remain open.

Meanwhile, the “pingdemic”, the shortage of HGV drivers and the hot weather were all contributing to delivery glitches, grocers said, while stressing to consumers that panic buying would create a problem that did not exist.

Supermarkets have urged customers not to panic buy in response to reports of emptying shelves, saying they are continuing to receive regular deliveries.

The UK’s biggest supermarkets described any shortages as “patchy” across stores but said there was no need for customers to change their shopping habits.

They said any gaps on the shelves were temporary as they awaited deliveries, and were occurring in pockets rather than across supply chains.

A Co-op spokesman said: “We are sorry that we are running low on some products. Like many retailers, we are impacted by some patchy disruption to our deliveries and store operations but we are working closely with our suppliers to get re-stocked quickly.”

A Sainsbury’s spokeswoman said: “We are working hard to ensure customers can find what they need.

“While we might not always have the exact product a customer is looking for in every store, large quantities of products are being delivered to stores daily and our colleagues are focused on getting them on to the shelves as quickly as they can.”

Tesco confirmed that it had plenty of food and deliveries arriving across the UK every day.

However sporadic disruption from the industry-wide shortage of HGV drivers and an increase in staff self-isolating on a precautionary basis was leading to pockets of temporary low availability across a small number of products.

Elsewhere, sandwich chain Pret A Manger has temporarily closed 17 shops due to staff being forced to self-isolate.

The head of the British Retail Consortium, Helen Dickinson, has suggested rules around self-isolation could be amended for people working in food supply chains following rising levels of staff absence.

Ms Dickinson suggested to BBC Breakfast that bringing forward the date double-vaccinated people will not need to self-isolate if they come into contact with a Covid-19 case could be one solution.

“There are some pilots for tested release for businesses and people who get paid to test themselves and then released back into their workplace, those pilots could be extended or that could be a new system,” Ms Dickinson said.