Countdown staff preparing for 'brutal' Omicron period

Source: 1News

Countdown is planning for a “brutal” few weeks for its workers with the Omicron variant of Covid-19 spreading in the community.

A Countdown store.

The company’s director of corporate affairs, Kiri Hannifin, told 1News that many workers hadn’t had a break over Christmas as it had been a busy time for supermarkets.

Hannifin said shoppers have heeded the Government’s advice to be prepared for Omicron and that there had been a “big few days of shopping.”

Countdown customers had been shopping up on "Covid products" like cold medicines, tissues, vitamins, cat food, toilet paper, pasta, rice and tinned food, according to Hannifin.

“We call them the Covid products, they were pretty popular on Sunday, which makes sense because the Prime Minister has told us to stock up with a few extra products to get us through isolation periods – and that’s completely fine, we can handle that.”

However, Hannifin warned against panic buying from customers.

“Trolleys of toilet paper are not good and not necessary… we’re asking Kiwis to get a few extra things but not to bleed us dry on things like toilet paper.”

“When people wipe us out, it just means the next person who was getting one thing can't get it,” Hannifin said.

A NZ Covid Tracer App QR code and hand sanitiser sit at the entrance to a Countdown supermarket.

Hannifin added that there were several issues as to why shoppers could find empty shelves right now despite only a handful of Omicron cases in the community.

“The international supply chain has been fragile for a couple of years now, so there’s always going to be issues with stuff we import like olive oil and cat food, there are delays because of shipping issues.

“There can be sketchiness with produce if the weather is bad… and then, of course, there is panic-buying where products are just wiped out,” Hannifin said.

Over the next several weeks, Hannifin said the company is planning for up to 30 per cent of the company’s on-site staff to be away in isolation.

“Some sites might not get to 30 per cent, some will, so that’s what we’re planning for, up to 30 per cent in one site.”

The company was most concerned about “vulnerable” supermarkets which were isolated from others, like its store on Waiheke Island.

Hannifin said Countdown had looked across the ditch for case studies while preparing for a new Covid wave here.

Supply chains in Australia appeared largely unprepared for the country’s surge of Omicron with many shoppers facing empty shelves in early January.

Frontline supermarket staff in Australia were also entangled in isolation requirements earlier than the general population, according to Hannifin, meaning supermarkets could be impacted sooner than other industries.

Amid the outbreak, the country made changes to close contact isolation rules for workers involved in critical food and grocery production.

Hannifin warned that supply chain issues, related to Covid isolation, would inevitably affect stock on store shelves here when Omicron cases are at their peak.

But she said the company’s management is confident that its supply chain “can handle it” and that Kiwis should be assured that food will find its way onto shelves.

“There will be some disruptions and some gaps on shelves, there will be things to buy but it might not be the brand you want… but trust us to do our job and we’ll do our very best – we’re feeling pretty prepared.”

She urged customers to be patient with store staff and to continue wearing masks to help protect frontline workers.

During last year’s Delta outbreak, Countdown temporarily closed stores as a result of staff having to isolate.

In an event of staff shortages, Hannifin said the company had the option to reduce store hours and that the company could shift workers between stores to address gaps.

In a media conference on Sunday, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said health officials had been designing their systems with the capacity for up to 50,000 new Omicron cases a day.

Hannifin said her company is looking for more guidance from the Government about how essential worker and close contact definitions could change over the next several weeks.