A bidding war has broken out for lorry drivers and it is pushing up pay and prices, ITV News Business Editor Joel Hills explains the gravity of the issue
The government has been told the UK faces the prospect of a summer of serious disruption to food supplies unless it acts immediately to address an acute shortage of HGV drivers.
Recruitment problems have been building since early April.
Farmers, abattoirs, food processors, wholesalers, warehouse operators, hauliers, charities, convenience stores and supermarkets say that the situation has reached crisis point.
On Monday, at a meeting chaired by David Kennedy - the director general for Food Farming and Biosecurity at DEFRA - 60 representatives of companies across the food industry detailed in stark terms the stress that supply lines are under.
According to a number of participants on the Teams call, Morrisons, Marks & Spencer, Asda, Sainsbury’s and Co-op Food urged the government to take action.
Craig Taylor, the Group Logistics Director at Morrisons, said that hauliers were “struggling” to deliver and that the volume of goods coming into the supermarket’s depots had fallen by 7.5% in June.
He described the southeast and southwest of England as “major hotspots”.
Asda’s Head of Logistics Chris Hall said it has become “incredibly difficult” to source agency lorry drivers, that costs were being driven up and that the problem of missed deliveries was “getting worse not better”.
Mr Hall said the situation has been “pretty tough” for the last three weeks, adding that Asda is “just about keeping our head above water” but that any spike in demand over the summer would “give us significant challenges and disruption”.
George Wright, M&S’s commercial director for food, said late deliveries and food waste were increasing and that the start of the summer holidays would make the situation “more acute”.
He flagged pinch points after July 19 (when restrictions are set to lift fully and holidays begin and in September (when schools return).
Mr Wright added that there is “the potential for shortages at Christmas”.
Dave Jacobs, head of logistics operations at Sainsbury’s, said supply lines are the “most pressurised” he’s seen in his 40-year career and he warned the pressure will “increase significantly” over the next twelve weeks.
“We have to do something in the short-term to get us through the summer,” he said.
The British Retail Consortium told the meeting that all of its members had experienced late deliveries of fresh food into their distribution centres and that it was affecting choice in store and the shelf life of food.
Andrew Opie, the British Retial Consortium’s food and sustainability policy director, described the situation as “very difficult” but not yet “critical”.
Food wholesalers say they are being impacted by driver shortages too.
According to several sources, the chief executive of Brakes, Hugo Mahoney, said his company was paying wage premiums of 20% for lorry drivers in the south of England but still struggling, both to source food from suppliers and to deliver it to customers.
“There is too much demand for the capacity we have,” he told the meeting: “I believe we are in an emergency."
Mahoney said Brakes was having to ration the orders it took and that smaller businesses in rural or remote locations were suffering disproportionately as a result.
The Federation of Wholesale Distributors (FWD), said Sheffield council had warned its schools that a shortage of cooking ingredients has increased the risk of “meal disruptions”.
James Bielby, the FWD’s chief executive, said some schools would struggle to reopen after the holidays in September unless delivery problems were resolved.
“Some schools won’t be able to feed their children.
Chief Executive of the Federation of Wholesale Distributors, James Bielby, says this is a crisis
"That’s not crying wolf, it’s a real risk,” he said.
Greencore, which makes food-to-go and convenience food for all the major retailers, said the shortage of lorry drivers was so severe that a “bidding war” had broken out for their services and that this was pushing the price of food up.
Premier Foods, which owns the Bisto and Batchelors brands, asked the government to consider using the army to distribute goods, pointing out that some military personnel hold HGV licenses.
Fairshare told the meeting that hauliers had capped volumes which were impacting its ability to collect food for vulnerable children and families.
Head of food, Joanna Dyson, said donations have fallen by 30% in the last three weeks.
Fairshare redistributes surplus food to 11,000 charities across the UK, including breakfast clubs, homeless shelters and community cafes.
The National Farmer’s Union said some of its members were having to “dump” fresh produce.
Philip Hambling, head of food and farming said there is the prospect of a bumper harvest this year but the NFU is worried that it will be difficult to transport cereals, fruit and vegetables to customers.
Hambling said there is evidence that livestock is becoming stranded on farms and that there will be “animal welfare issues” unless the shortage of lorry drivers is dealt with.
Logistics UK’s members account for half the lorries on the UK’s roads.
It estimates that are approximately 76,000 vacancies for HGV drivers which need filling.
It blames the problems on the restrictions imposed during the pandemic and Brexit.Logistics UK calculates that in the last year one third of EU nationals working as HGV and van drivers have returned to their home nations.
Last week, the Chief Executive of the Road Haulage Association Richard Burnett, told ITV News there would be “gaps on the supermarket shelves within weeks” unless there was an immediate response from the government.
The government has pledged extra resources for HGV training and testing, but across the food and logistics sectors, there are calls to relax the new post-Brexit immigration rules to allow foreign drivers to be recruited.
It is resistant and believes the onus should be on companies to make their jobs more appealing to British workers.
A government spokesperson said: "We're working with industry and have already taken action on HGV driver shortages, including ramping up vocational test capacity, and funding apprenticeships.
"However, most of the solutions are likely to be driven by industry, with progress already being made in testing and hiring, and a big push towards improving pay, working conditions and diversity.”
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