Warning of food shortages “as bad as the first lockdown”

05 July 2021, 07:17 AM
  • Logistics and food supply chain experts say the UK is facing a crisis due to a lack of HGV drivers
Warning of food shortages “as bad as the first lockdown”

A shortfall of lorry drivers due to Brexit and Covid is threatening food shortages in the UK, and the rippling effects are reaching fine food independents.

Logistics UK, which represents the nation’s logistics businesses, said a delay to more than 45,000 HGV driver tests due to the coronavirus pandemic, plus the departure of 79,000 European logistics workers to their home countries after Brexit, added to an existing shortage in the industry.

According to delivery firm ParcelHero, food deliveries are already being impacted by the driver shortage. “We could soon be facing shortages as bad as those at the start of the first lockdown, which could mean a return to the rationing of staple foods,” said ParcelHero’s head of consumer research, David Jinks.

Tesco recently warned the government that 48 tonnes of food was going to waste each week due to the driver shortage, and the Cold Chain Federation told The Guardian the situation was a “real crisis for food supplies”. Premier Foods, one of the largest food companies in the country, has asked the government to consider bringing in the army to help distribute food.

Logistics UK has called for the government to introduce a seasonal visa for European HGV drivers to protect the nation’s supply chain and protect food security. “The government recently granted temporary visa status for agricultural workers to ensure that important crops are picked and made available for UK consumers. But without temporary visa status for the drivers to move this food to where it is needed, the supply chain will break down at the first hurdle,” said chief executive David Wells. Without temporary cover, he warned that there is a “very real risk to the availability of the food and other vital items on which we rely during the summer months.”

Impact on the fine food sector

Many independent retailers didn’t feel the impact of panic buying food shortages in the first lockdown thanks to their shorter supply chains – in fact, many farm shops, delis and cheesemongers welcomed new customers who couldn’t find the staple products they needed in larger supermarkets.

However, the HGV driver shortage is having ripple effects throughout the sector, as Gary Crawford, operations manager at fine food distributor The Cress Company, explained: “Although Cress are not a direct user of HGV drivers, the shortage of drivers with this type of license has also had a knock-on effect on the availability of good quality 3.5t van drivers. Drivers who have been successful at interviews are receiving counter offers as their current employers panic, potentially putting inflationary pressure on wages.

“As things begin to open up again, and with this year’s trend of the staycation, demand is growing at a rate that makes additional drivers essential. This definitely puts a real strain on current driver resources,” Gary said. The company has also had to look for alternative hauliers at short notice due to HGV operators which it subcontracts from not having enough resources to maintain the service.

A “perfect storm”

The recruitment issues in the logistics sector are being compounded by the sharp rise in summer holidays in the UK, as a result of continuing travel restrictions.

ParcelHero’s David described the situation as a “perfect storm”, and the Federation of Wholesale Distributors (FWD) revealed that the shortage would have led to thousands of pubs and restaurants being unable to open full on 21st June if the final easing of lockdown restrictions had gone ahead as originally planned. If nothing changes, an even worse distribution crisis could unfold by the reopening on 19th July, warned FWD chief executive James Bielby.

“The driver shortage in the food supply chain is at crisis point, leading to massive waste and empty shelves,” said FWD Chief Executive James Bielby. “Last week we met Department of Transport Ministers and told them they need to operate on a crisis footing. They are not, and we’re sleepwalking towards disaster.”

James warned that with more stops being added to the daily delivery run, if a driver cannot complete a route within their shift, small independent businesses may be the ones to lose out on their food deliveries. “If the undelivered stock is fresh or chilled food, it can’t always go back into storage when the vehicles return to base, or if it has lost useability due to delays, it will have to be thrown away,” he added.

While the fine food sector’s use of local suppliers will certainly help them amid this crisis, it is clear that more support is needed to protect the supply chain and Britain’s food security.

This article was originally published on 25th June, 2021

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