The UK should brace itself for months of food shortages from 1 January as strict European rules are enforced and the prospect of long delays at the customs border scare off truck drivers from even attempting to deliver goods across the Channel, experts on both sides of the channel have claimed.
According to the boss of Europe’s largest haulage trade body, the UK is looking at a “nightmare scenario” that will lead to “weeks, if not months” of food shortages after the Brexit transition period comes to an end in just four weeks.
The UK’s leading haulage organisation has also criticised the Government’s preparations, claiming truck companies are unable to plan for the new rules “because we’ve not been told what the rules are”.
Delays at customs as well as the reluctance from EU-based haulage firms to get stuck in costly queues in and around UK ports will, claim the experts, lead to a shortage of many shoppers’ favourite products including pasta, cheese, meat and wine.
Prices of everyday food and drink items are also expected to increase due to the shortages and the additional costs incurred by delivery companies entering the UK.
Marco Digioia, secretary general of the European Road Haulers Association, said he was priming his membership for “huge bottle necks between the UK and EU”.
“You can expect empty shelves in supermarkets from the first week of 2021,” said Mr Digioia. “It’s a complete nightmare scenario. It will last for weeks, even months.”
UK imports more than half its food
The UK imports around 45 per cent of its food, with 26 per cent coming from the EU and the remainder from the rest of the world. European imports come mainly from the Netherlands (14 per cent of the total value of EU goods), Germany (11 per cent), Ireland (10 per cent) and France (10 per cent).
Other shopping basket regulars likely to be in short supply include green leaf salads and citrus fruits, with UK relying heavily on Spain to deliver. Tomatoes from the Netherlands and pork from Denmark is also likely to be in short supply.
Even cheddar cheese, a product associated strongly with the UK, could become a rare sight. The UK actually gets most of its cheddar from Ireland, as well as much of its beef.
EU drivers will not come to UK to avoid costly queues
Duncan Buchanan, policy director for England and Wales at the UK’s Road Haulage Association, confirmed many EU truck drivers were refusing take on the queues in Dover and other UK ports.
“This will be more disruptive to supply chains than Covid has been,” said Mr Buchanan. “EU hauliers are refusing to travel to the UK from 1 January, and they’re asking our drivers to take up the slack.”
Mr Buchanan went on to criticise the Government for not allowing truck companies to see the new digital customs system – called Goods Vehicle Movement Service (GVMS).
He added: “We haven’t even had the chance to see the GVMS yet. We should have had this information in August in order to prepare.”
Why UK food deliveries could be hit from January
The UK secures around 45 per cent of its food from abroad, with around 26 per cent of it direct from EU member states and more arriving via the EU from the rest of Europe, northern Africa and the Middle East.
Logistics experts have said one main reason for food shortages will be because EU truck drivers and companies are refusing to add to their costs by sitting in queues at UK customs from 1 January. They also said the UK could not stockpile any further as food warehouses were already full.
While around four million trucks travelled across the English Channel last year, the European Road Haulers Association believes this figure will more than half next year as customs restrictions are imposed with or without a Brexit deal being stuck before the end of this month.
There are also concerns the UK Government’s new digital customs system will not be fully implemented by the New Year, which will lead to further delays on food.
Simon Sutcliffe, a former HMRC customs investigator and partner a tax and advisory firm Blick Rothenberg, said: “We are aware that there is widespread concern that UK logistics firms are experiencing pushback from EU haulers. Either they are flatly refusing to come to the UK or have massively increased their haulage rates.”
Mr Sutcliffe added the shortage of willing foreign haulers is something that the UK government may have failed to factor into the Brexit issues.
Much of the UK’s supply chain especially fresh produce and ‘just in time’ deliveries of raw materials and components is reliant on foreign based haulers. If they decide that the risks outweigh the benefits, then there is little the government can do.
‘Supply chain suicide’
Charles Hogg, commercial director at UK freight provider Unsworth, said: “This will inevitably lead to an increase in cost for UK/ EU movements on an already strained market It will be a nightmare – almost supply chain suicide.”
The boss of Tesco, the UK’s largest supermarket, has also raised questions over the supply of food after the end of the Brexit transition period.
Speaking to Sky News, Tesco’s chief executive Ken Murphy said the logistics issue was “the biggest challenge” facing the company at the year’s end and he could not rule out the prospect of prices increases to reflect any additional cost increases as a result.
Government puts onus on businesses to prepare
A Government spokeswoman said: “We are making significant preparations for the guaranteed changes at the end of the transition period including investing £705m in jobs, technology and infrastructure at the border and providing £84m in grants to boost the customs intermediaries sector.
“This is alongside implementing border controls in stages so traders have more time to prepare.
“With less than one month to go, it’s vital that businesses and citizens make their final preparations too. That’s why we’re intensifying our engagement with businesses through the Brexit Business Taskforce and running a major public information campaign so they know what they need to do to get ready.”