Why UK food shortages could be here to stay

13 September 2021, 08:18 AM
  • The food and farming sectors are warning of worsening supply chain shortages in the run-up to Christmas
Why UK food shortages could be here to stay

Worker shortages which continue to hamper supply chains across the UK could be here to stay, with the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) warning that it could last for up to two years, while the Food and Drink Federation says the challenges could become permanent.

Food and drink retail, farming, foodservice and logistics sectors have all been impacted by the shortage of workers, which has resulted in empty shelves at supermarkets. While independents have not been immune, their shorter supply chains offer some leverage.

Research by YouGov revealed that more than half of British shoppers have experienced food shortages in their local supermarkets and shops over recent weeks. The poll found that 56% had experienced shortages, while 39% had not, and 5% said they didn’t know. Londoners were the least likely to have seen shortages, while Scottish shoppers were the most likely.

Driver shortage continues

A shortfall of HGV drivers due to Brexit, Covid and longer-term effects has become a hot-button issue for the industry, with Henry Bloxham of Moors Covert Farm recently revealing to the BBC that he was told to dump his milk as it couldn’t be collected due to a shortage of lorry drivers. “Our costs are rising all the time and I’m just envisioning this winter is going to be very expensive. Unless we get more price increases going forward into the winter, there will not be milk on the shelves,” he warned.

According to the Road Haulage Association, there is a shortage of more than 100,000 truck drivers. The BBC has reported that the government will announce a shake-up of the HGV driver testing process imminently in order to solve the crisis.

Shortages across the supply chain

The CBI said the labour challenges extend “well beyond” HGV drivers to include other skilled professions, and it called on the government to adopt a more flexible immigration policy in response.

“Labour shortages are biting right across the economy,” said CIB director-general Tony Danker. “These shortages are already affecting business operations and will have a negative impact on the UK’s economic recovery.” Indeed, the economy stalled in July thanks to a drop in retail sales and the impact of the ‘pingdemic’ on the workforce, according to the Office for National Statistics’ latest figures. GDP grew by just 0.1% in July from the previous month.

Independent retailers have also experienced staff shortages, especially during the pingdemic, with retailers telling Speciality Food that they were unable to operate at “full steam”. Charlie Wells of The Farm, Stratford, said, “Trying to staff whilst people are having to isolate has been tough on the team. There isn’t a day where we’re not short staffed.”

Calls for new immigration policies

“In the UK, many overseas workers left during the pandemic affecting sectors including hospitality, logistics and food processing. And new immigration rules make replacing those who left more complex,” said Tony. “Using existing levers at the UK’s control – like placing drivers, welders, butchers and bricklayers on the Shortage Occupation List – could make a real difference. The Government promised an immigration system that would focus on the skills we need rather than unrestrained access to overseas labour. Yet here we have obvious and short-term skilled need but a system that can’t seem to respond,” he continued.

The food industry recently came together to call for a Covid Recovery Visa that would address these shortages right across the food and drink supply chain.

As well as adapting with new visas, new ways of working may be in order going forwards. The Food and Drink Federation’s chief executive Ian Wright believes the just-in-time system which supermarkets and restaurants rely on is “no longer working”. Speaking at an event from the Institute for Government, he continued: “I don’t think it will work again; I think we will see we are now in for permanent shortages. Now, these shortages don’t mean that you’re going to run out of food… But what is changing now is that the UK shopper and consumer could have previously expected just about every product they want to be on a shelf or in the restaurant all the time. That’s over, and I don’t think it’s coming back,” he said.

Smaller and more localised food systems, the likes of which independents provide, could have a bigger place in the future of food.

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