Industry organisations are reacting to the gathering storm over driver shortages in the UK food supply chain.

“Between Brexit crippling recruitment from the EU, IR35 tax changes leading many drivers to leave the industry, and a growing backlog of driving tests caused by the pandemic, this continued disruption could spell catastrophe for businesses after one of the most difficult years on record.”

The words of Rob Wright, executive director at SCALA – provider of management services for the supply chain and logistics sector – sum up the growing concern over staff shortages in both food transport and production.

Wright has warned: “If this continues, it is not just businesses that will feel the brunt, with consumers also potentially being affected. If products cannot get to stores, on-shelf availability naturally decreases and, with this limited supply, the price of goods could be drastically inflated.

“Supermarkets and wholesalers also face having less flexibility to meet spikes in demand, and may need to cap volumes of their products.

“To combat these driver shortages, the government must provide the much-needed support that the industry has been demanding for so long. The government must provide monetary grants to support the industry, amend immigration policy to place drivers on the shortage occupations list and significantly increase the availability of HGV driver tests after the blockage created by the coronavirus lockdowns.

“Simply enough, the industry’s demands for support must be heard and actioned upon, or this crisis could get much worse.”

Retailer warning

Online retailer Approved Food is calling for further support for the industry to recruit drivers, who are in demand following the impact of Brexit and the Covid-19 pandemic, but also wants supermarkets to engage with more food redistributors to prevent waste.

It has been widely reported that Tesco suppliers are binning almost 50 tonnes of fresh food every week because of too few HGV drivers being available to transport it to stores.

The pandemic, coupled with the effects of the Brexit transition on the availability of foreign workers, means drivers are in demand at a challenging time for the food sector.

The Road Haulage Association (RHA) estimates the shortfall of drivers has now reached around 70,000. It predicts that shoppers will see increased costs passed on to them and has suggested a 12-point plan for the sector that includes a seasonal visa scheme for qualified HGV drivers, priority driving tests and improvements to the road network.

The Federation of Wholesale Distributors has already warned that its members are struggling to get food deliveries out to supermarkets, restaurants, pubs, schools and care homes. Some convenience stores have had to put up signs warning customers of empty shelves. It wants the army to step in to help carry out deliveries.

Approved Food brand ambassador Jonathan Straight explained that 50 tonnes of waste might be around half a dozen trucks full, dependent on exactly what was being transported.

He urged supermarkets to work with more organisations with the capability to redistribute food: “This issue does not need the army – many organisations would be glad of this food. Wasting precious resources is not acceptable, especially when we have a problem with people going hungry.”

“Critical levels”

Andy Needham, managing director at Approved Food, added: “Lockdown and Brexit have amplified the challenges that already existed in the logistics sector, and these have now reached critical levels.

“There were already issues surrounding attracting younger workers to the industry, competition from warehouse jobs and a skills gap caused in part by the expense of training HGV drivers.

“With the restrictions now in place dictating how firms can recruit from Europe, there needs to be more incentive and training for people living in the UK to want to work as drivers to help both the foodservice and logistics industry get back to where they once were.

“Yet, despite the shortage, we need to see a more open attitude to who has access to supermarket surplus food in order to prevent it from being binned unnecessarily.”

  • You can also read an in-depth look at the labour shortage position in the July/August issue of Food Management Today, which will be online and in print in early July.