Cabinet ministers have met (24 September) to agree a plan to address the driver shortage, which now has led to some difficulties in delivering fuel to forecourts and consumers queuing to panic buy petrol, according to Sky News. The media outlet suggests the Government will shortly announce a u-turn on immigration measures, allowing temporary visas for overseas staff for not just logistics but other sectors relevant to the food industry.
Meanwhile, the report from the Driver Require Think Tank has said the UK should look at attracting some of the 330,000 heavy goods vehicle (HGV) licence holders, of whom 235,000 are below the age of 45, back into driving for a living.
Last month, the heads of Logistics UK and the British Retail Consortium said the Government needed to take immediate steps to solve the HGV driver shortage and ease the unsustainable pressure placed on supply chains.
The shortfall of drivers is estimated to stand at 100,000 drivers by the Road Haulage Association. However, according to the Driver Require Think Tank report the actual shortfall is at the most 70,000 and probably lower.
Exodus of EU drivers?
It has dismissed claims that an exodus of EU drivers caused the shortage, claiming these drivers only account for 18% of the required staff.
It added that the pandemic led to 70,000 people leaving the workforce, bringing numbers from 300,000 pre-pandemic to 230,000. Of these only 12,500 were EU nationals, most of whom it believes were under the age of 45.
“We believe the 55,000, predominantly British, over-45s left mainly in Q1 2021 when demand fell off," it said. "During this period many were self-isolating or furloughed and may have realised they preferred other options to driving for a living.”
Doubling training capacity
The report added that granting temporary visas to relevant EU workers would not solve the crisis, but maintained that doubling the capacity for training would work in the immediate term.
Meanwhile, IPP, the poolers of pallets and boxes, has said the industry must continue to collaborate to overcome the driver shortage.
It suggests that the industry needs to work together to maximise all empty trailers and more efficient operations can be adopted with wasted journeys being heavily frowned upon.
“While the Government pledge to increase HGV driving test capacity and apprenticeships is welcome, as well as positive discussions around increasing working conditions and diversity, there is a simple and instant solution going some way to easing the issue – and we’re committed to working together with our partners to ensure the supply chain runs as efficiently as possible during these testing times,” said Shelley Harris, IPP commercial director.
“We work on many collaborative solutions and empty running is a key focus as we find our businesses working in such turbulent times. Understanding our supply chains and maximising all empty trailers is imperative. This is a solution that IPP employ so that our supply chains continue to run seamlessly and benefit from a more efficient and sustainable way of working."
However, many in the market are still urging the Government to implement a COVID Recovery Visa to alleviate crippling labour shortages across the whole supply chain, including production and operations as well as drivers.
A letter to Government from the National Farmers Union (NFU) and other organisations within the food supply chain has called for the 12-month COVID Recovery Visa, which would enable the supply chain to recruit critical roles as a short-term response to labour shortages.
Workers outside the EU
Speaking to BBC Radio 4's You & Yours programme on 23 September, Nick Allen, chief executive of the British Meat Processors Association said an emergency visa would also allow workers to be recruited from outside the EU in regions such as South America and the Philippines.
The NFU has also called for a permanent, revised and expanded Seasonal Worker Scheme for UK horticulture and has called for an urgent review by the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) on the impact of ending free movement on the food & farming sector, in the same way it is doing for adult social care.
The letter to the Prime Minister said: “The food and farming sector remains on a knife edge due to the unprecedented shortages of workers across the entire supply chain. The industry came together in the summer to evidence these challenges, and the final report showed that there are an estimated 500,000 unfilled vacancies across the industry.
“The situation is not improving, in fact, images of empty supermarket shelves are becoming commonplace as labour shortages bite. As we move towards Christmas, there is a substantial threat of food inflation directly impacting the poorest families.
“It is a travesty that this is happening in parallel with UK food producers disposing of perfectly edible food as it either cannot be picked, packed, processed or transported to the end customer.”
Speaking to BBC Radio 4's Today programme on 24 September, Tony Wilson, director at the Institute of Employment studies said a pan-industry shortage of almost one million UK workers was caused by factors including a huge number of over-50s not yet returning to the labour pool. "We estimate there's probably about a million fewer people in the labour market now than there were before the crisis began and probably about a quarter of that is explained by lower migration - that's mainly lower immigration since the pandemic rather than higher emigration. 500,000 of that is explained by more people over 50 who have withdrawn from the labour market."
Wilson attributed almost a third of the worker shortage to more young people in higher education and only a small number to furloughing.
While there are calls for help with UK production, the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health (CIEH) said it supported the UK Government’s decision to delay imposing checks on food imports from the EU, highlighting the need to use the time to address serious issues about the future regime.
Post-Brexit border controls
Last week the UK Government announced that it was to again delay the implementation of post-Brexit border controls on phyto-sanitary and sanitary checks for imports from the EU, citing the disruption of global supply chains caused by COVID-19.
Measures, such as the requirement to pre-notify British officials about agricultural and food imports from the EU will now start on 1 January 2022, rather than on 1 October this year. Also, the requirement for EU firms to get export health certificates before sending live animals and animal products to Britain would be put back to 1 July 2022.
The EU has implemented full checks on UK goods since the start of this year.
Shortages in shops
The Government’s decision comes amid a backdrop of concerns about shortages of some products in shops.
Kate Thompson, CIEH Wales director, said: “On balance the delays are probably sensible given the need to build more border control posts, address the skills shortage crisis and ensure businesses are ready.
“The mixed response from our members working in ports across the country shows the disparate level of readiness from port to port. Some places are reporting that they are simply not ready for these controls to be implemented.”