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Ministers are being urged to temporarily relax immigration rules for overseas lorry drivers and other supply chain workers amid industry warnings that the disruption causing empty supermarket shelves across the country is set to get worse this month and beyond.
A perfect storm of the coronavirus pandemic, Brexit, and shrinking numbers of of HGV drivers has put enormous strain on the UK’s food supply chains as the country emerges from lockdown.
The UK is suffering from a major shortfall in lorry drivers, logistics groups say, after significant numbers retired or changed jobs during the pandemic, while non-UK national drivers who left the country will struggle to come back due to the government’s post-Brexit immigration rules.
The disruption has led to social media being awash with pictures of empty supermarket shelves, as shops struggle to get hold of stock. Dairy producer Arla last week revealed it had been unable to get milk to a quarter of supermarkets — or 600 shops — due to the dearth of HGV drivers.
But shortages are not just confined to drivers. Nigel Jenney, CEO of the Fresh Produce Consortium, said the organisation’s recent surveys found that its average member was 10-20% short of labour every day. This was resulting in crops not being picked and food going to waste, he told PoliticsHome, making it harder for supermarkets to get hold of fruit and vegetables.
The disruption is expected to worsen over the next few weeks, as large numbers of drivers and other workers in the supply chain take holidays after working non-stop during the pandemic.
Despite this, the government has rejected industry calls to add drivers and other workers in the supply chain to the shortage occupation list. The latter says doing so would allow businesses to hire overseas workers on a short-term basis, and quickly build up the UK’s labour force.
But a government source said this was not up for discussion, telling PoliticsHome: “The clear message from across government is we want to build a resilient domestic workforce, and not rely on immigration to do this.”Ministers want the industry to hire more UK workers and make the job more appealing by improving pay and conditions. The Department for Transport says it is working with the Department for Work & Pensions and Department for Education to make lorry driving a more attractive career.
Industry groups say they want to hire more UK workers but stress it will take many months to recruit sufficient numbers, and that this approach does not resolve the crisis facing supply chains now.
“We need to keep products on the shelves in the short term,” said Shane Brennan, Chief Executive of the Cold Chain Federation. “We believe the government should allow for short-term recruitment of overseas labour to support the supply chain during this critical period.”
Alex Veitch, head of policy at LogisticsUK, said there had been 45,000 missed lorry driver tests during the pandemic and that it would take at least until early next year to get through the backlog.
“We are not trying to change the entire content of flow of the government’s immigration policy,” he told PoliticsHome. “Adding drivers to the shortage occupation list would just to tide us over until we can get enough trained British nationals through the DVLA testing turnstiles to take up the jobs.”
A government spokesperson insisted steps had been taken to tackle the shortage of drivers.
“We recently announced a package of measures to help tackle the HGV driver shortage, including plans to streamline the process for new drivers to gain their HGV licence and to increase the number of tests able to be conducted,” they said.
“We have also temporarily relaxed drivers’ hours rules to allow HGV drivers to make slightly longer journeys, but these must only be used where necessary and must not compromise driver safety.”
The disruption to food supply chains is expected to become even more severe later this year when the government finally introduces checks on goods entering the UK from the European Union.
The government in March decided to delay the phased introduction of EU import checks until October, arguing that businesses needed more time to prepare for the new paperwork.
The new checks are expected to exacerbate the pressure on supply chain workers by creating delays to food entering from the continent, as businesses in the UK and Europe get to grips with the new red tape.
“We have to be ready for a crisis of some scale in the availability of some goods,” warned Brennan of the Cold Chain Federation. Trade groups are especially worried about January, when an array of new checks on food imports from the EU are set to be introduced by the government.
“We saw how much of a crisis there was for British exporters due to the implementation of Brexit checks in January — and we import twice as much food from EU than we export to the EU. We are looking at similar problems in October and particularly January. I am incredibly nervous.”
This week, the Food & Drink Federation wrote to Cabinet Office Minister Lord Frost, who overseas the UK’s relationship with the EU, and Environment Secretary George Eustice warning “it is inevitable that there will be disruption to supplies” when the checks are introduced.
The letter, shared with PoliticsHome, urged the government to step up its preparations, saying there are “significant areas of uncertainty where we do not have the information required for our businesses to continue importing the full range of products and ingredients that they require.”
The Department for Transport has been contacted for comment.
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