A shortage of delivery drivers has led to two of the UK's biggest suppliers warning customers including schools that they will be unable to fulfil food orders.
The Caterer understands that the same staffing issues affecting hospitality operators, namely EU citizens who left the UK during the Covid-19 pandemic and haven't returned and restricted access to non-UK workers post-Brexit, has meant a shortage of heavy goods vehicle (HGV) drivers. It is being reported that there are almost 70,000 driver job vacancies and that supplies of many products into the UK are being disrupted by increased bureaucracy post-Brexit and a third of EU nationals working as drivers in the UK have returned to their home nations.
Fewer drivers has meant fewer orders can be accommodated on the lower number of vehicles, as well as a bottleneck as drivers are limited to driving a certain number of hours for health and safety reasons.
Coupled with the huge surge in demand since hospitality reopened last month, a fall in the number of UK nationals training as HGV drivers due to restrictions during the pandemic, some drivers retiring and a change in taxation rules which has reduced the amount of money self-employed drivers are able to earn, a huge amount of pressure has been placed on the food supply chain across the UK.
"Even for anyone who's worked in purchasing for some time, it's as significant and widespread a challenge as we've ever seen," said Rachel Dobson, managing director of Lynx Purchasing. "Hospitality has come back with a bang post-lockdown, and the unexpectedly high level of demand is the first real test of the ‘new normal' in supply chain terms."
The procurement company is recommending operators start planning bigger orders once or twice a week rather than relying on six-day-a-week deliveries.
However, for some operators this advice comes too late. One senior manager in the education sector, who wished to remain anonymous, told The Caterer he was informed last week by Bidfood that it would not be able fulfil its usual deliveries to his schools with no indication of when it will be able to resume its usual service.
He said: "It doesn't count that we have a five-day-a-week contract and need to feed children. We have had suppliers disappear completely and have had to source new suppliers in two areas.
"It's going to be a tough four weeks before the end of term, but if the government doesn't pull its finger out the hospitality industry is going to implode. There will be no food to serve as there will be no one to pick, load and deliver."
Although schools across the country break for the summer in the coming weeks, he said his procurement consultant advised the issue may last through to September and beyond. He has been recommended to buy early and stock up, but the schools do not have sufficient storage space or walk-in fridges and freezers, so he may have to hire portable chilling units. The schools have already advised attendees to its summer schools to bring packed lunches.
Meanwhile, a nursery school in London received an email from Brakes this week saying that it was unable to offer any delivery days "until further notice" and recommended the business "find an alternative source in the short term".
"How do they think we are going to feed our 64 children without notice?" asked the company's managing director. "Our online order system with Brakes is showing our next delivery as being 15 August and that is the only one showing for the rest of the year."
Andrew Selley, chief executive of Bidcorp UK, the parent company of Bidfood, is calling on the government to recognise the challenges the supply chain is facing and the detrimental impact this could have if they are not resolved in time for the easing of restrictions on 19 July.
Selley, along with the Federation of Wholesale Distributors (FWD), is asking the government to temporarily relax drivers' hours, as happened last year to ensure supermarkets were stocked; as well as add drivers to the Shortage Occupation List or introduce a seasonal worker or periodic visa scheme to enable recruitment from the European Union. He added it was "imperative" that the government invested in the backlog of driving tests stopping "thousands" of potential drivers becoming available.
He warned: "Ultimately, the government is curbing recovery and until these issues are resolved, there will continue to be resource issues which will be felt not just by our industry, but across the retail sector and right across the food supply chain."
James Bielby, chief executive of the FWD, said: "Wholesalers will always prioritise their critical customers like schools, hospitals and care homes, but the knock-on effect of that is that private business, especially in remote and vulnerable communities, such as independent restaurants and local pubs, or those customers with smaller orders, will be most affected by shortages of products and drivers. The capacity constraints will hit the public sector eventually as well.
"We're asking the government to reintroduce the temporary extension of drivers hours which was in place last year. That would give drivers on multi-drop routes enough flexibility to ensure that the more remote pubs and restaurants, which are often the only ones in their communities, get the stock they need."
The FWD is also calling for the temporary waiving of requirements for medical certificates and Certificates of Professional Competence for those which have run out in the last two years, as the Covid period has meant that many drivers have been unable to renew their certificates. The FWD is even concerned enough to suggest that the government considers having army trucks on standby to ensure there are enough vehicles and drivers to distribute food, however this is a last resort.
Paul Nieduszynski, commercial director at Brakes, also confirmed the company had been impacted by the lack of availability of drivers which has resulted in disruption for customers, particularly in the south.
He said: "We're working around the clock to ensure that as many deliveries as possible are fulfilled. To meet the challenge, we are asking customers to place fewer, larger orders if they can. This helps us keep our distribution network as efficient as possible, meaning we can get more food and supplies to more customers."
A government spokesman said: "We have met with industry figures to discuss HGV driver shortages and possible solutions around recruitment and retention.
"Most of the solutions are likely to be commercial and from within industry, with progress already being made in key areas such as testing and hiring, and a big focus towards improving pay, working conditions and diversity.
"Our new points-based immigration system makes clear employers should focus on investing in our domestic workforce, especially those needing to find new employment, rather than relying on labour from abroad."
The Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency (DVSA) has ramped up vocational test capacity so 3,000 practical tests are available each week, while the government has recently confirmed funding of up to £7,000 per apprenticeship for people training to be a lorry driver, further to industry sources identifying this as a key request.
A letter organised by the Road Haulage Association and signed by the FWD as well as the Food and Drink Federation, British Frozen Food Federation, Cold Chain Federation, Meat Producers Association and British Beer and Pub Association has called on the prime minister to intervene personally and warned the country is "weeks away" from "gaps on the shelves".
In the meantime, Dobson said it was likely to take months rather than weeks to resolve the problems. She said fresh produce and fish such as bass and bream are particular areas of concern, while some home-produced food simply can't be picked, packed or delivered due to labour shortages.
"Almost every sector is seeing the impact to some extent," she said.
"It's going to take a concerted effort to move forward. At government level, the problems of post-Brexit bureaucracy and the challenges of employing overseas labour have to be addressed. Internationally, the roll-out of Covid vaccines is key. Suppliers hate to be unable to fulfil customer orders and are doing all they can to meet demand, but operators will also have to do their bit. Daily deliveries and just-in-time top-up orders have led to a degree of complacency. Operators may have to get used to better menu planning, more notice for suppliers, and fewer and bigger deliveries."
Shutterstock image: By GetFocusStudio
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