Photos of barren supermarket shelves have been circulating on social media throughout the summer – a dismal backdrop to what was meant to be a season of ‘freedom’ from coronavirus restrictions, ushering in the return of the much preferred and long-sidelined ‘old normal’.
Summer turned out rainy and still pretty Covidy, and an estimated shortage of 100,000 lorry drivers creating the supply chain problems that are stopping food from getting to the correct destinations certainly hasn’t helped national mood.
As to why this has happened, Remainers shout “Brexit” and Brexiteers run to well-stocked aisles to take photographs claiming that, no, there’s no food shortage, actually. But what is really happening and who can we blame? Let’s peruse the aisles for answers.
Which companies are affected?
Nando’s closed 50 stores due to a chicken shortage AFP via Getty Images
That there have been supply-chain shortages over the past few months is barely in dispute. After all, supermarkets have released reluctant statements about disruptions they have faced.
Steve Murrells, chief executive of the Co-operative Group, said it was reducing some ranges as the industry’s ability to get food to shops was hit by post-Brexit migration rules and Covid-19.
“The shortages are at a worse level than at any time I have seen,” he told the Times.
Meanwhile, Richard Walker, managing director of Iceland, warned there was a growing danger of empty shelves at Christmas.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that the company routinely has to cancel up to 30 or 40 deliveries a day, with up to 100 stores being left short of bread and other staples and stocks of soft drinks only about 50 per cent of normal.
Arla, which supplies milk to about 2,400 stores each day in the UK, said it was unable to deliver to 600 shops on the last Saturday of July due to shortages.
Meanwhile, milkshake fans across the land were disappointed yesterday, after learning that McDonald’s had run out of the ingredients to make them, and would also temporarily stop stocking bottled drinks in 1,250 of its stores across England, Scotland and Wales.
And Greggs said they were experiencing supply chain issues “for some ingredients”, affecting stock in some shops.
Wetherspoons, Subway and Beefeater have also reported some issues.
How have we got here?
Boris Johnson and European Commission president Ursula von der LeyenPA
Post-Brexit immigration rules and workers opting to leave the UK (we can’t think why) has made recruitment difficult, the Road Haulage Association (RHA) says.
Some 14,000 EU HGV drivers left employment in the UK in the 12 months to June 2020, and only 600 have returned in the past year, according to analysis of Office for National Statistics labour force data commissioned by Logistics UK.
As well as this, Brexit – a policy designed in part to strip back bureaucracy and red-tape – has created a lot of, ahem, bureaucracy and red-tape slowing down routes through which goods enter the UK. Checks have been in place since January.
“If you overlay the end of the grace period for checks on food products and the Europeans are not yet ready to do paperwork, we could be facing a really significant problems here in terms of food supply chain,” Richard Burnett, RHA’s CEO warned, speaking to Huffington Post.
Industry bodies have repeatedly called on the government to allow EU workers to return to plug the gap.
Logistics UK spokesman Alex Veitch told the i: “The industry is working hard to recruit new drivers, with the implementation of new apprenticeships and other training schemes and working with DVSA to speed up its testing regime, but these measures will take some time to produce new drivers.
“Our industry needs drivers now, and we are urging Government to replicate its temporary visa scheme, introduced for agricultural workers, for logistics to keep trucks and vans moving in the short term.”
In a statement, Helen Dickinson, chief executive of the British Retail Consortium (BRC) added: “We are calling on the Government to rapidly increase the number of HGV driving tests taking place, provide temporary visas for EU drivers, and to make changes on how HGV driver training can be funded.”
PCR Covid test providers have been warned they risk enforcement action over misleading advertising and failing to deliver results on time (Jane Barlow/PA)PA Archive
The coronavirus lockdown created a huge backlog of around 30,000 lorry drivers who have been waiting to take their HGV tests.
That’s not all. Remember when the pandemic was rebranded as the ‘pingdemic’ this summer?
And an app notifying people that they had been in contact with someone with coronavirus and should therefore self-isolate was hated more than the, you know, often dangerous virus?
Anyway the pandemic or pingdemic means that people who are infected with or come into contact with coronavirus are not able to work, creating more shortages. The total of workers absent because of this reason reached a record high of more than 600,000 in late July.
What came first, the Brexit or the Covid?
It seems that these two policies are equally catastrophic in causing the shortage. In a statement issued in June, Burnett said: “We don’t know if it’s because Europeans who would traditionally be in these roles have left because of Brexit or because of Covid and aren’t able to come back yet because of the pandemic, but it is a very real problem.”
What solutions are being considered?
Grant Shapps PA
So that’s the pickle we are in but what is the solution? Some companies are taking matters into their own hands and incentivising people to keep on trucking. Amazon, for one, is paying recruits a £1,000 bonus to fill vacancies at warehouses in Coventry, Darlington, Dartford, Redditch and Swansea.
Tesco is also offering new drivers a £1,000 bonus and a “market supplement” over a six-month period, as per a job advert.
The government has also woken up to the crisis and has flung out various solutions. The Department for Transport said longer lorries could be on roads by next year, reports say. The longer design is predicted to help save up to one in eight journeys by fitting more freight in.
And transport secretary Grant Shapps recently increased the maximum amount of time a lorry driver can spend on the road from nine to 10 hours. Those concerned with health and safety tutted.
Meanwhile, some reports say that the government has called for support from the army, as some 2,000 army personnel members are trained lorry drivers. If they are on standby to take over, they could help takeover when there are extreme shortages.
As for Brexit causing staff shortages, the government has said companies should just hire domestic workers instead. In a press statement issued recently, the Home Office said:
“The British people repeatedly voted to end free movement and take back control of our immigration system and employers should invest in our domestic workforce instead of relying on labour from abroad.”