Lorry driver shortages threaten food supply chain

The UK food supply chain is at risk of crisis following a shortage of 100,000 HGV drivers, which has been credited to both the Covid-19 pandemic and uncertainty over Brexit.

In a letter to the Prime Minister, the Road Haulage Association (RHA) called for action, with RHA chief executive, Richard Burnett, warning of “critical supply chains failing due to the significant shortage of HGV drivers.” The letter was also signed by chief executives of the Food and Drink Federation, British Frozen Food Federation, and the British Meat Processors Association.

According to the letter, there was already a shortage of over 60,000 drivers before the Covid-19 pandemic, but since the outbreak things have gotten even more difficult. 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.”

One of the solutions proposed in the letter is to introduce a temporary worker visa for foreign HGV drivers, and for the government to add the role to the Home Office Shortage Occupation List.

Due to such a shortage, Tesco bosses met with Under-Secretary for Transport, Lady Vere, last week, warning that 48 tonnes of food was being wasted a week. The British Retail Consortium suggests we should not fear empty shelves, as there is “minor disruption” for some supply chains, adding: “Supermarkets are working closely with their suppliers to ensure that consumers still have access to the same great selection of goods.”

Shane Brennan, chief executive of the Cold Chain Federation, explained that as lockdown eased, demand for chilled food warehouses reached the average Christmas time levels. “I think it is going to be like a series of rolling power cuts in that we are going to see shortages, then shelves replenished, and shortages again.”

To address these concerns, the Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs (Defra) held talks with industry representatives, who warned shortages could incite panic buying and stockpiling, as seen in early 2020. Defra is considering putting lorry drivers on the official shortage occupation list, as suggested. The department is also discussing the increase of capacity for HGV tests and training to try and bring in new domestic workers, or relaxing the restrictions on current drivers’ working hours, a blow to the already meagre working conditions of lorry drivers.

Its noteworthy that the government and employers organisations seem fixated on either exploiting increasing numbers of workers from abroad; or attacking the conditions of and increasing the strain on existing HGV drivers. The obvious solution to the crisis seems to have escaped them – improving the pay and conditions of all drivers and improving access to training to attract more workers to the sector.

Philip English, is a member of the YCL’s Manchester Branch

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