The country is facing a summer of food shortages likened to a series of “rolling power cuts” because of a loss of 100,000 lorry drivers due to Covid and Brexit, industry chiefs have warned.
In a letter to Boris Johnson they have called for an urgent intervention to allow eastern European drivers back into the country on special visas, similar to those issued to farm pickers, warning that there is a “crisis” in the supply chain.
They have said shortages of workers in warehouses and food processing centres are also having an impact with packing food for supermarket shelves.
Tesco bosses raised the issue at a meeting with the minister for transport, Charlotte Vere, last week warning that the vacancies were creating 48 tonnes of food waste each week, the equivalent of two truck loads.
Sources at the supermarket chain said the lorry driver shortage was affecting fresh food with short shelf life most.
James Mee, a blueberry farmer from Peterborough, said the shortages of food with short shelf life could also hit Wimbledon, synonymous with the British strawberry.
He warned that unless there was government intervention, food could rot in the fields with concerns being raised in the farming community for the late summer grain harvest in addition to soft fruits.
“We have been told by the haulier company we have used for years that they can only come and pick up our fruit once a week. But the fruit only have a five-day shelf life so we need picking up every day. If we can’t get our fruit to the supermarkets, that is massively significant,” said Mee.
The Guardian has spoken to one Polish driver, who had lived in the country before Brexit, who arrived in Doncaster Sheffield airport to respond to the crisis but was refused entry by border force because he did not have enough evidence at the airport to support his settled status claim.
“There is an enormous shortage of HGV drivers that we estimate at between 85,000 and 100,000,” said Richard Burnett, chief executive of the Road Haulage Association.
“We are weeks away from gaps on the shelves, it is as serious as that,” he added.
A recent RHA survey of 796 businesses that employ 45,000 drivers showed that all companies had vacancies.
“We are saying to the government that they must put HGV drivers on the shortage occupation list urgently. We need to get a pool of labour quickly because we cannot train them quickly enough and we need to plug this gap. We’ll have British HGV drivers going on summer holiday soon, which means no backfill at all. So the problem is only going to get worse,” said Burnett.
Shane Brennan, chief executive of the Cold Chain Federation, which represents chilled food warehouses across the country, said: “We are seeing big vacancies in key roles, drivers being the most important one but also in our production line, our packing lines. We’re seeing intermittent supply chain failures into retail and hospitality that is just building week by week.”
He said that with the easing of lockdown, demand for chilled food warehouses was at Christmas levels and would get worse as the country approached “freedom day” and hospitality venues opened.
“I think it is going to be like a series of rolling power cuts in that we are going to see shortages, then shelves replenished, and shortages again. That is going to carry on for as long as demand is unpredictable and labour remains as tight as it is,” added Brennan.
The letter to the prime minister was signed by the Food and Drink Federation, British Frozen Food Federation, Federation of Wholesale Distributors, Cold Chain Federation, British Meat Producers Association and the British Beer and Pub Association.
“We firmly believe that intervention from the prime minister/Cabinet Office is the only way we will be able to avert critical supply chains failing at an unprecedented and unimaginable level. Supermarkets are already reporting that they are not receiving their expected food stocks and, as a result, there is considerable wastage,” it said.
Truck driving in the UK has been dominated by eastern European drivers in recent years but Brexit and Covid have created the “perfect storm” for the sector, said Burnett.
“We don’t know if it’s because Europeans who would traditionally be in these roles have left because of Brexit or because of Covid and aren’t able to come back yet because of the pandemic, but it is a very real problem” said Burnett.
He said the risk was that, unless something was done quickly, supply of food from outside the UK could also be hit.
Brexit checks were implemented in full on the continent on 1 January but are being phased in over a year in the UK, with lorry parks in Kent and elsewhere not fully operational yet.
“If you overlay the end of the grace period for checks on food products and the Europeans are not yet ready to do paperwork, we could be facing a really significant problem here in terms of food supply chain,” said Burnett.
A Department for Transport spokesperson said it had met industry figures “to discuss HGV driver shortages and possible solutions around recruitment and retention”, adding: “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.”
The department said the 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”.