Will continued supply chain disruption mean Christmas is cancelled?

Over the past few weeks, images of bare supermarket shelves and severely substituted food deliveries have circulated across social media, adding to the fear of many consumers. If no solution is found to a shortage of drivers and manpower, this year’s festive season will be remembered for its empty shelves.

The legal requirement for thousands of retail staff to isolate in the past few weeks, after either contracting the COVID-19 virus or coming into contact with someone who tested positive, has undoubtedly had a significant impact on labour capabilities in recent weeks.

The staff shortages could mean there aren’t enough turkeys for Christmas, poultry producers have warned.

The British Poultry Council (BPC) said its members, which includes the country’s largest supplier of supermarket chicken, have told them that one in six jobs were unfilled because EU workers have left the UK after Brexit.

Paul Kelly, the managing director of KellyBronze, which produces free range turkeys, told The Guardian that big producers would opt to rear fewer birds if they were not confident of securing the 1,500 to 2,000 needed to get the birds ready for sale at Christmas.

He said: “There will be a massive shortage because companies cannot risk hatching turkeys and pushing them on the farm if they can’t get the workers to do the job.

“Everywhere you look in a supply chain there are problems,” said Shane Brennan, CEO of Cold Chain Federation. “Food already isn’t being replenished into supermarkets quick enough and it’s not just because of logistics but a lack of production.”

The problem has been thrown into the limelight this week after restaurant chain Nando’s had to temporarily close more than 40 outlets in Britain due to staff shortages.

It is not just those working on supermarket shelves that have been off work, but, even more significantly, those who are working in the manufacturing of the produce, with the low pay and instability of the sector another reason for the shortfall in workers.

Compounding the production difficulties, there is now also a significant shortfall in transport supplies, with a lack of HGV drivers to deliver the produce. The Road Haulage Association (RHA) has said there is now a shortage of at least 100,000 drivers, which could worsen in the weeks to come.

Many workers have also been forced to isolate which has increased the existing shortfall, whilst others have had their HGV tests to pass as truck drivers delayed because of the pandemic, creating a huge backlog.

Transport workers union Unite have accused ministers and company bosses of "dragging their feet" over the HGV driver crisis.

Unite said government and haulage bosses need to sit down with it to tackle the underlying causes of the crisis that has resulted in gaps appearing on supermarket shelves across the country, and threatened that industrial action remains on the table.

Logistics company PML (Perishable Movements Ltd) agree with Unite and have released a statement which reads:

‘The current HGV driver crisis is something that PML predicted some time ago and we wholeheartedly agree with Unite that urgent action needs to be taken. However, at PML we are not relying on the government to take steps to address this acute issue. We are already working on specific plans to provide drivers - whose pivotal role in maintaining the supply of food and other critical supplies during the pandemic has largely gone unnoticed - with the practical support which we believe they are naturally entitled to. PML has always put driver safety and welfare at the top of its agenda. We will be sharing news of our various planned initiatives in the very near future.”

Whilst the government has brought in army reinforcements to help manage the situation, and companies such as Dixons Carphone are offering cash incentives to retrain staff members as drivers, RHA’s Rod McKenzie still worries that the crisis poses a “very serious threat” to supplies.

So, the lasting effects of Covid-19 are clearly evident in the latest shortfall, and whilst isolation rules are beginning to ease up for those who are double jabbed, this will fail to completely remedy the current crisis.

But what about Brexit? Is there any substance behind the claims – now so evident on social media – of hundreds of lorries jammed up at borders?

Certainly, it would be wrong to say that Brexit hasn’t brought its challenges when it comes to supplies. Endless sheets of paperwork and border checks, imposed because the UK has now left the single market as per the withdrawal agreement, has slowed the movement of produce and led to many diplomatic rows between the UK government and the EU, especially over the movement of produce across Ireland.

Yet, it is important to note that the reason why the Brexit situation is so severe is because of the shortage in labour to manage the transfer of goods. None of these problems can be solely to blame for the current crisis in food supplies, and all have compounded an already bad situation.

So, what is the solution?

There is no easy remedy, but a huge recruitment drive will be essential in the weeks to come. Retail workers need to be incentivised to work and job retention must be a vital priority, with isolation restrictions on labourers kept to an absolute minimum.

Unless this situation is solved, shelves could remain bare, leading to the panic buying we saw at the very start of the pandemic and very little cheer for us in the coming festive season.