Shortage bomb

Shortage bomb

Over the past few weeks, images of bare supermarket shelves and substituted food deliveries have circulated across social media. The headlines in the national press have exacerbated the ongoing talk to generate some great summer headlines.

That’s not to downplay a very concerning issue. Britain is facing a perfect storm of Brexit, people self-isolating, demand for chilled goods and a pingdemic.

Yet, beyond Brexit and the pingdemic there are some more deep-seated reasons behind UK food shortages.

Even before the delta variant started spreading, there were issues around Brexit – from seasonal labour shortages to a lack of drivers of heavy goods vehicles. The UK’s Road Haulage Association estimates that 15,000 EU nationals have left the industry since the start of this year.

Add in rules of origin checks, food safety checks and limits on the number of trips hauliers can make once abroad then it’s easy to see the impact of these disruptions, particularly in Northern Ireland, where the Brexit deal has added bureaucracy in the form of the Northern Ireland Protocol.

The food and beverage industry responded to these challenges. For example, some suppliers have cut back on less popular products so that production can concentrate on filling shelves with the ones that customers bought the most often. However, it’s the British Meat Processors Association’s statements that strike at the heart of what’s going on here.

Issuing a stern warning that staff and skills shortages continue to hamper food production is, to me, what’s central to the food and beverage industry’s progress. Many meat companies are already around six weeks behind their Christmas production schedules, the association says. This has already prompted grave headlines, but it’s time for action on the part of the government on skills. It has been party to numerous discussions on issues such as recruitment and filling vacancies for quite some time. It’s an issue that will not go away and is now causing stress on UK supply chains.

In the short term, the government can ease restrictions on immigration policies. In the long term, the government needs to demonstrate its support to the industry by assisting more entries to sectors that generate significant income. Earlier this year, two qualifications – Level Three Diploma in Food Technology and the Level Three Diploma in Food Technology and Manufacturing – were added to the Lifetime Skills Guarantee.

But, it has taken time, and lobbying, to reach this point. Yes, the government has listened to the food industry on this occasion but food and beverage manufacturing is the largest employer in manufacturing in the UK.

There is no easy remedy. A huge recruitment drive is essential. Unless this situation is solved, shelves could remain bare. We don’t want a return to the panic buying we saw at the very start of the pandemic.

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