Gaps on supermarket shelves are likely to continue for several months unless the government does more to tackle the labour crisis hitting haulage firms, suppliers have warned.
Logistics and hauliers’ organisations said August would be a pinch point in the shortage as workers take summer breaks, while firms offering bonuses and sign-on fees to recruit drivers were not helping matters.
The shortage of qualified HGV drivers, worsened by Brexit and Covid, has left wholesalers unable to get goods to shops, with major dairy producer Arla on Friday admitting it could not get milk to about a quarter of supermarkets last week.
Shane Brennan, chief executive of the Cold Chain Federation, said the issue was getting worse: “We’re firefighting right now. We have got a lot of vacancies but also a lot of workers on holiday. We’ve got a short-term summer problem. We’re going to have interruptions on the shelves – we’re resigned to that.”
Rona Hunnisett, of Logistics UK, said there was “a pinch point with holidays. These guys have been working flat out since the start of the pandemic.”
She urged consumers to be patient and not overbuy: “There is plenty of stock in the supply chain, in all the warehouses. And plenty of fresh homegrown produce.”
Tesco is among firms that are offering incentives of £1,000 or more to lure HGV drivers to work for it. Rod McKenzie of the Road Haulage Association said firms were offering “big bucks” and signing-on fees to drivers. “This is a real problem because all they are doing is buying talent from somewhere else. They are not creating talent,” he said.
“We may be paying them more, which is a good thing, but we need new drivers. My challenge to the companies is: why not spend some money on recruiting and training new drivers?”
Dairy UK said collection of milk from farms had continued “despite hauliers being under considerable strain”, while many staff working in the dairies themselves were absent because of the “pingdemic”. Dr Judith Bryans, the organisation’s chief executive, said the government should bring forward skilled worker visas for HGV drivers and dairy processing to help recruit staff, adding: “This is an evolving situation that the sector will continue to monitor closely.”
Some Sainsbury’s stores were among those hit by milk outages but the supermarket said only some lines were affected and large quantities were still being delivered daily. A spokesperson said: “We are working hard to ensure customers can find what they need. While we might not always have the exact product a customer is looking for in every store, large quantities of products are being delivered to stores daily and our colleagues are focused on getting them on to the shelves as quickly as they can.”
Brennan said the problem would be worse at Christmas. “It’s been obscured by the pingdemic but that was the superficial problem rather than the ongoing problem – that we are chronically short of the drivers we need at every stage of the supply chain,” he said.
“We’ve seen a massive exodus of non-UK labour during the pandemic and we don’t know if they are able to come back.”
James Bielby, chief executive of the Federation of Wholesale Distributors, said an aluminium supply issue meant products such as soft drinks and beer were scarce, while Brexit-related labour shortages were affecting fresh goods such as meat and milk. “It’s going to get worse before it gets better,” he warned.
“Structural challenges remain and they’ll remain as long as there’s no intervention from government,” he said.
Retailers said there had only been “minor disruption” to supply chains but backed calls for urgent government action. Andrew Opie, director of food and sustainability at the British Retail Consortium, said: “Government must rapidly increase the number of HGV driving tests taking place, fill gaps by providing visas for EU HGV drivers, and also look for a longer-term solution to this issue.”
Logistics UK urged the government to extend an incentive scheme for employers to hire apprentice drivers.