Lorries distribution centre

A raft of major food companies have relaunched mass testing centres at factories and distribution centres as the industry faces a race against time to prevent a Christmas workforce crisis.

In emergency talks with Defra this week, which were dominated by updates on Omicron, it emerged testing facilities were being hurriedly reopened at factories and distribution centres in order to avoid absence rates among key workers soaring.

The government has confirmed staff working in food production can avoid the requirement of 10 days’ self-isolation from Covid contacts by taking daily lateral flow tests, although difficulties in obtaining the tests are threatening to undermine this option.

The Grocer understands food businesses told the government they are confident major disruption to Christmas supplies can be avoided if the industry can limit absence rates over the crucial next few days, with testing seen as the main weapon.

As well as testing, it is understood Defra officials urged businesses to reintroduce measures such as cohort working where possible, even though the government has not imposed any new regulations, leaving the process down to individual businesses.

Defra has said it will issue more detailed advice to firms in the next few days, but leaders warned that a lack of clarity was an added problem to companies already under the cosh.

“There was a great deal of confusion over what is mandatory and what is voluntary,” said a source at the meeting.

“For companies that have stopped cohort working, the very strong suggestion was that they should reintroduce it, but as far as I can make out this is just advice – it’s largely putting the responsibility on employers.

“A series of companies also revealed they were reintroducing mass testing of workers on-site. But of course, this is something smaller companies don’t necessarily have the facilities to carry out.”

Another source added: “One of the biggest concerns is around DC staff. They are of course working in close proximity with each other and are such a key part of the supply chain.

“But if we can make it through the next few days and supplies can get to supermarkets, we are confident we can avoid major shortages at Christmas.”

Industry bosses were also told that despite the rising numbers of infections, the UK government has no plans to bring in much tougher restrictions such as those announced by the Scottish government this week, which will see supermarkets return to social distancing and the possibility of long queues outside stores.

Supermarket chiefs north of the border expressed dismay at the new rules.

“Retailers will strive to implement and operationalise these latest changes, albeit they are being asked to do so at incredibly short notice, without sight of the detailed regulations or guidance, and slap-bang during what is for many the busiest trading weekend of the year,” said David Lonsdale, director of the Scottish Retail Consortium.