Business owners take over wheel after lack of UK drivers hits supply

Paul Cheema has just put in another 12-hour shift for his store in Coventry in the English Midlands. Not behind the counter, but behind the wheel: he drives his van to and from a wholesaler in Birmingham to buy stocks that his suppliers have failed to deliver.

Its supply crisis was caused by a lack of truck drivers. Driven largely by Brexit, the issue has been exacerbated by high coronavirus rates, which has forced many truckers who were still working on self-isolation after being exposed to a possible positive case.

“Over the weekend, we ran out of bread and milk,” Cheema told the Financial Times. “So, I went into the van. It’s a pain, but we’re here to serve our community and we need full shelves. ”

Lack of food have become one of the most popular topics on C-Talk, a national Cheema forum set up for small store owners. “People are on the verge of breaking up,” he said.

U Convenience Store Association (ACS), a lobby group for the sector, described the British departure from the EU followed by the “pingdemic” as a “perfect storm”.

The ACS and some UK employers are urging the government to exempt fully vaccinated drivers and sales staff from self-isolation if they are exposed to Covid-19 but test negative. This change is not expected until August 16th.

Paul Cheema out of his Women’s magazine in Coventry © Andrew Fox / FT

Cheema is a member of And women, a cooperative with 4,000 shops that has been forced to cancel several deliveries in the past due to lack of drivers.

Adrian Costain, who owns the Nisa stores in Merseyside, has also resorted to cash and carry after Warburtons, the baker, signed the deliveries this week. “We get a much better service from our smaller suppliers,” he said.

Warburtons did not respond to a request for comment.

Nisa said: “Across the UK, the lack of drivers and the need to isolate have affected supply chains and the delivery of goods. We are in regular communication with our partners to keep them aware of any delivery changes. “.

Spar magazines suffer as well. Wholesaler AF Blakemore, which supplies more than 900 Spar stores, canceled nearly 10 percent of its cold orders this week to try to reset its network. It also changed a decision to close a store in Hastings and improved the conditions for drivers, according to a note seen by the FT.

Sarah Ellis, marketing director of the AF Blakemore group, told the FT that the number of Britons on holiday at home had increased demand at the busiest time of the year.

She said the disruption will be “short-lived”, but called on the government to help. “While the creation of Covid-19 test centers in distribution centers will benefit the availability of colleagues, more action is needed to help alleviate the shortage of drivers.”

A delivery truck outside a Tesco Express store in central London

Asda and Tesco pay a £ 1,000 connection bonus to new drivers until the end of September to help with recruitment © Yui Mok / PA

The Haulage Road Association said the UK was short of 100,000 conductors, in an industry that usually employs about 600,000.

Another problem is that fewer pilots are qualified because tests were canceled during the pandemic. Others have left the industry after the government changed the IR35 rules to treat them as employees, rather than self-employed, who added to their tax bills.

The government has rejected calls from commercial bodies for the temporary readmission of EU-based drivers until more British drivers can be recruited or trained.

But one driver, who did not want to be named, said the shortages were the culmination of years of declining wages and working conditions.

“Wages have been stagnant for 20 years. In fact, in many cases they have reduced, particularly since the influx of workers from Eastern Europe, “he said.” We are treated like workers. “

Even large supermarkets have reported sporadic shortages, with bulky but good products like mineral water a particular problem. Some have had to provide incentives to help with recruitment – both Asda and Tesco are paying a £ 1,000 signing bonus to new pilots by the end of September.

The department store John Lewis announced on Thursday that it would increase the salaries of its truck drivers by up to £ 5,000 a year.

A female staff member cleans empty shelves in a Nisa store

Nisa, which has 4,000 businesses, has been forced to cancel several deliveries in the past due to a lack of drivers © Andrew Fox / FT

Meanwhile, food is scarcer. Farmers and meat processors lost 16.5 percent of their normal workforce because of Covid-19 and Brexit, the National Union of Farmers (NFU) said.

As a result, the British Poultry Council said its members had made unprecedented production cuts. Most produce 5 to 10 percent less chicken than usual and 10 percent less turkey, while Christmas turkey production will be forecast for a fifth.

“The UK’s food security will be hit with a double whammy of food inflation and will be forced to rely on more imported food,” said Richard Griffiths, chief executive of the poultry trade group.

Tom Bradshaw, vice president of the NFU, said fruit and vegetable growers also suffer from labor shortages. Many EU temporary agricultural workers have chosen not to work on British farms, despite a pilot visa scheme for seasonal work.

About 65 percent of these workers were normally repatriated from previous years, but this year only 35 percent were repatriated, he said.

“There is a lot of inflationary pressure, with wages being a key driver. Trying to pass [added costs] the supply chain is proving really difficult. There’s a real pressure at the farm level – the margins are eroding and disappearing very quickly, ”Bradshaw said.

The lack of transportation forced a producer to send nearly 500,000 pounds of fruit to the landfill in June, he added.

The UK government said: “We have recently announced a package of measures to help address the shortage of HGV drivers, including plans to simplify the process for new drivers to obtain their HGV license and to increase the number. of texts capable of being realized. “

“We have also temporarily relaxed the rules of drivers’ hours to allow HGV drivers to make slightly longer journeys.”

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