Is business to blame for Britain’s supply chain mess? Boris Johnson thinks so.
In a speech to the party faithful on Wednesday, the leader of the traditionally pro-business Conservative Party doubled down on his message that the UK.’s fuel crisis and supply chain strains—caused by labour shortages—were a natural by-product of “growth and economic revival.” And, for good measure, he blamed the trucking industry for underinvesting.
It's a message that Johnson has repeated in recent days, drawing outrage from a sector that has been warning of a critical shortage of drivers for months. On Tuesday, David Wells, CEO of Logistics UK, called such claims “quite frankly wrong,” pointing instead to the UK. government’s immigration policy, and delays in testing and certifying new drivers.
Unlike in the U.S. and other countries with mounting labour shortages, the UK.’s problems have a distinct source: In large part, they can be attributed to a post-Brexit clampdown on the flow of labour from the European Union that, until last year, the country depended on to staff everything from logistics operations and abattoirs to investment banks and the National Health Service.
The shortage of drivers in the trucking industry, which has seen a departure of 19,000 drivers owing to the pandemic and changes in Brexit immigration policy, has had an especially pernicious domino effect throughout the UK. economy, spurring delays and shortages in everything from fuel to groceries. Increasing the sense of crisis, a short-term program to give drivers three-month visas ahead of Christmas has also flopped. On Tuesday, the UK. government told Fortune that only 27 drivers had applied for the permits—not 127 as Johnson himself claimed.
Speaking at the Conservative Party conference on Wednesday, however, the Prime Minister struck a triumphant tone, peppering his speech with his customary off-colour jokes to raucous applause, and only briefly addressing the “present stresses and strains” that have left parts of the country with hour-long queues for fuel.
“The answer is to control immigration—to allow people to come to this country, but not to use immigration as an excuse for failure to invest in people, in skills, and in the equipment, the facilities, the machinery,” Johnson said. He singled out increasing the quality of truck stops, “so people don’t have to urinate in the bushes.”
“That is the direction in which this country is going: towards a high wage, high skill, high productivity and yes, thereby a low tax, economy, that the people of this country deserve,” he said.
The trucking industry isn’t the only sector feeling dissed by Johnson as it grapples with supply chain and labour shortages. Similarly, the UK. farming industry has begun culling healthy pigs owing to a scarcity of labour so severe they cannot get animals to slaughterhouses in time.
“I am desperate to get the facts to the Prime Minister about this story,” National Farmers’ Union president Minette Batters told BBC Radio 4 on Monday. “We have never had a cull of healthy livestock in this country, and…this cannot—be a first. I cannot stress this enough, it is a welfare disaster.”
Nigel Jenney, chief executive of the Fresh Produce Consortium told BBC Radio Cambridgeshire: “It’s heart breaking and totally avoidable!
“The fallout from the pandemic, coupled with the many challenges that Brexit has brought about, will continue to affect the supply chain for many months, if not years, unless we can find solutions now,” he added.
“This is beyond the industry’s making, it’s beyond our control. The food industry wants to provide a great service but it needs support to ensure there aren’t empty shelves for many months to come.
“The FPC has worked with its members to develop innovative new solutions for the industry.
“They lie in making agriculture ‘smarter’ by developing and adopting the new technologies and innovations that can dramatically enhance productivity and reduce its high labour demand and by making the various sectors more attractive to a new generation.”
Jenney went on to broach the subject of bringing in much-needed fresh blood to the industry, calling it ‘an elephant in the room’ and re-affirming how the food-growing industry is desperately lacking a new generation of workers.
“FPC has been pro-actively looking at new ways to bridge the disconnect between the next generation of agricultural and horticultural workers and the perception of the industry as a whole.
“We believe we’ve found some solutions,” he explained.
“There needs to be a fundamental shift in the perception and overall infrastructure of our food supply system.
“We believe in educating the industry about how both agriculture and horticulture can be made smarter through the incorporation of technologies such as AI, IoT, robotics and automation, along with the development of new growing systems and practices, all designed to promote long term sustainability,” he continued.
With this in mind, the consortium have developed two unique and ‘free to attend’ industry events.
The new events, both of which will be jointly held at Lincolnshire Showground on 4 November, have been developed in partnership with the University of Lincoln Institute for Agri-Food Technology (LIAT).
They each tackle different challenges faced by the industry in a unique way.
FPC Future has been created to be the agritech event for the fresh produce and flower industry and will house an exhibition, conferences, working displays and tours.
“This much-needed event will educate and showcase all that is new right now, as well as exploring what the future promises,” explained FPC event manager Cristina Melenchon.
“Visitors will be able see how new technologies can help them become more efficient, increase productivity and help their workforce” she added.
The conference programme is an extensive one, with eight conference sessions covering pre and post farm robotics and automation, data driven technologies, plastics and packaging, supply chain waste, carbon supply chains, vertical farming and sustainability.
There will also be a dedicated theatre, where exhibitors can present their latest offerings to a captive audience. This, coupled with the facility for working displays, gives exhibiting companies a unique opportunity to ensure their products and services are seen.
“FPC Future is the perfect platform for companies wishing to showcase their next generation technology and product lines to the growers, packers, importers, exporters, retailers, wholesalers and service providers,” said FPC’s Business Development Manager Linda Bloomfield.
“Innovation will drive the future commercial success of the sector, and this is a great opportunity for those in agritech to take part as an exhibitor in order to showcase their solutions, forge new contacts and ultimately pick up new business,” she added.