The country is facing a summer of food shortages compared to a series of “rolling power outages” due to the loss of 100,000 truck drivers due to Covid and Brexit, industry bosses warned.
In a letter to Boris Johnson they called for urgent intervention to allow Eastern European drivers to return to the country on special visas, similar to those issued to agricultural pickers, warning that there is a “crisis” in the supply chain.
They have said that the worker shortage in warehouses and food processing centers is also having an impact on the packaging of food for supermarket shelves.
Tesco bosses raised the issue in a meeting with Transportation Minister Charlotte Vere last week warning that vacancies were creating 48 tons of food waste each week, the equivalent of two loaded trucks.
Sources at the supermarket chain said the truck driver shortage was mainly affecting fresh food with a short shelf life.
James Mee, a Peterborough blueberry grower, said a shortage of food with a short shelf life could also affect Wimbledon, synonymous with the British strawberry.
He warned that unless there was government intervention, food could rot in the fields and the farming community was concerned about the late summer harvest of grains in addition to berries.
“The transport company that we have used for years has told us that they can only come to collect our fruit once a week. But the fruit only has a shelf life of five days, so we have to pick it every day. If we can’t get our fruit to supermarkets, that’s hugely significant, ”Mee said.
The Guardian has spoken to a Polish driver, who had lived in the country prior to Brexit, who arrived at Doncaster Sheffield Airport to respond to the crisis, but was denied entry by the border force because they did not have sufficient evidence at the airport to back up their settlement. claim of status.
“There is a huge shortage of heavy vehicle drivers that we estimate between 85,000 and 100,000,” said Richard Burnett, executive director of the Road Haulage Association.
“We are weeks away from shelf failures, it’s as serious as that,” he added.
A recent RHA survey of 796 companies employing 45,000 drivers showed that all companies had openings.
“We tell the government that it must urgently include drivers of heavy vehicles on the shortage list of occupations. We need to get a pool of workforce quickly because we can’t train them fast enough and we need to close this gap. Soon we will have British heavy vehicle drivers going on summer break, which means there will be no refueling. So the problem is only going to get worse, ”Burnett said.
Shane Brennan, CEO of the Cold Chain Federation, which represents refrigerated food warehouses across the country, said: “We are seeing huge vacancies in key roles, with drivers being the most important, but also in our production line, our packaging lines. We are seeing intermittent supply chain failures in retail and hospitality that are being built week by week. “
He said that with the closure easing, demand for refrigerated food stores was at Christmas levels and would worsen as the country approached “freedom day” and places of hospitality opened.
“I think it’s going to be like a series of continuous power outages where we will see shortages, then shelf spares and shortages again. That will continue as long as demand is unpredictable and the workforce remains as scarce as it is, ”added Brennan.
The letter to the Prime Minister was signed by the Federation of Food and Drinks, the British Federation of Frozen Foods, the Federation of Wholesale Distributors, the Federation of the Cold Chain, the Association of Meat Producers and the British Association of Beer and Pubs. .
“We strongly believe that Prime Minister / Cabinet Office intervention is the only way we can prevent critical supply chains from failing at an unprecedented and unimaginable level. Supermarkets are already reporting that they are not receiving the expected food stocks and as a result there is considerable waste, ”he said.
Truck driving in the UK has been dominated by Eastern European drivers in recent years, but Brexit and Covid have created the “perfect storm” for the sector, Burnett said.
“We don’t know if it is because the Europeans who would traditionally be in these roles have left due to Brexit or Covid and cannot return yet due to the pandemic, but it is a very real problem,” Burnett said. .
He said the risk was that unless something was done quickly, the food supply from outside the UK could also be affected.
Brexit controls were fully implemented on the mainland on January 1, but are being rolled out gradually over more than a year in the UK, and truck parks in Kent and elsewhere are not yet fully operational.
“If you overlap the end of the grace period for food controls and the Europeans are not yet ready to do the paperwork, we could be facing a really significant problem here in terms of the food supply chain,” Burnett said.
The Department of Transportation has been contacted for comment.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism