Food, beer, toys, medical kit. Why is Britain running out of everything? | Brexit

Gaps on supermarket shelves. Fast food outlets pulling milkshakes and bottled drinks from their menus. Restaurants running out of chicken and closing. Empty vending machines. Online grocery orders full of substitutions. Fruit and vegetables rotting in the fields.

These are just some of the most visible signs of Britain’s deepening supply chain crisis, which has seen stocks in shops and warehouses slump to their lowest levels since the Confederation of British Industry began surveying in 1983.

It has led to dire warnings that the UK’s food system, which has been hit hardest by delivery delays and labour shortages, is in danger of reaching breaking point and may not be able to meet Christmas demand.

Customers may have only started noticing this crisis in recent weeks but it has been building for months, with businesses, road hauliers and transport unions telling ministers at the start of the summer that a shortage of lorry drivers could lead to empty shelves.

The logistics industry estimates around 100,000 more HGV drivers are needed to get goods and materials moving again. The shortfall has emerged, in part, because 14,000 EU drivers have left the country and only 600 have returned since Brexit. The pandemic has also disrupted training and tests for new drivers: around 40,000 HGV driving tests were cancelled last year.

However, for unions and some drivers, the pandemic and Brexit have only exposed the limitations of the low-wage, precarious employment model that has come to dominate the logistics sector. “All the headlines are blaming Brexit and Covid. But they are just the straws that have broken the camel’s back,” says Adrian Jones, a national officer for Unite, which represents workers throughout vital supply chains, from warehouse staff to lorry drivers. “This has come after decades of drivers being undervalued. Ten pounds an hour does not reflect the skills and knowledge needed to even start work as a lorry driver, or the responsibility of driving 44-tonne vehicles on congested roads in the UK. They are treated with disdain.”

It’s not hard to find dissatisfaction on the roads. Mark Hughes, 44, who has been driving HGVs for 20 years, says pay has barely changed in his working life, with retention bonuses only emerging in the last few months as companies have attempted belatedly to hang on to their drivers. “My stepdad was a driver. He was bringing home £550 a week,” says Hughes while waiting for turkey products to be offloaded from his lorry in Hemel Hempstead. “Last year – before Brexit and Covid – drivers were earning £550,” he says. “There’s been nothing for 35 years.”

A lack of facilities and time pressure means drivers are often forced to use their cabs as toilets and wash by the side of the road. “The main thing you need for this job is a blanket, pillow, wet wipes and plastic bags,” says Hughes. “The laybys are sometimes covered in shit so it’s safer to crap in a plastic bag inside your cab. You wash with soap and water in a plastic bowl. It is degrading. It’s like living on the streets.”

HGV driver Mark Hughes in the cab of his lorry.
HGV driver Mark Hughes in the cab of his lorry. ‘It’s like living on the streets.’ Photograph: Ben Gurr/The Observer

Sitting behind a wheel for 15 hours a day and eating on the go ravages drivers’ bodies. Unpublished analysis by Unite shows over the last 10 years the number of drivers who have had their licences suspended or revoked for medical reasons has doubled. Hughes subsists on a diet of service-station food and takeaways because there are few other options. “I’ve just been diagnosed with diabetes,” he says. “You spend all day sat down. My legs and ankles hurt. I get cramps. I’ve smashed 10 Nurofen already this week.”

Unsurprisingly, some quit altogether. Official figures suggest thousands of HGV licence holders are not actually driving HGVs. Gordon Nicoll is one of them. He quit this month, fed up with woeful roadside facilities, near-misses and stagnant wages. “The money is rubbish, the conditions are rubbish, and you are treated like crap,” he says from his home in West Lothian. “And then you’re expected to move mountains in [an] impossibly short time.”

Instead of working 15-hour days delivering to supermarkets during the pandemic, Nicoll, 42, now works as a prop assistant in the film industry. He is not tempted by the financial inducements on offer from the likes of Tesco, which has advertised joining bonuses of £1,000 for HGV drivers. “It’s not worth it,” he says without hesitating.

Robert Skidelsky, the economist and biographer of John Maynard Keynes, blames decades of underinvestment for many of the skills shortages cited by employers. “Ever since the 1960s the UK has suffered a relative lack of investment compared to the rest of Europe and the US. Unions were blamed for deterring private sector investment right up to the 1980s, which Margaret Thatcher used to justify undermining union power.

“We have always had a huge lack of investment in our people. Technical education has been, and continues to be, a poor relation.”

UK input shortages

For Unit
e, this shows why the quick fixes, including bringing in more temporary drivers from overseas, will not address the underlying problems, which are depleting an already ageing workforce and putting off new drivers. Jones points out the industry is not just facing a recruitment crisis but also a retention crisis. “We are short of about 100,000 HGV drivers right now. But there are about 75,000 to 85,000 HGV licence holders who do not drive,” he says. “Many are dropping out because of the lack of respect.”

Employers have been able to hold down pay by bringing in low-paid agency workers from the UK and EU to fill gaps. “They have had the ability to utilise this pool of what employers call flexible labour, but I call it exploitable labour, to cover these jobs for years,” says Jones. “But that has almost dried up now.”

Even the industry now accepts that wages have been too low for too long and working conditions need to improve to attract a more diverse range of people, including women. Natalie Chapman at Logistics UK says pay rates are increasing now, with agencies and job boards reporting that rates for new drivers are up 20% year on year, but admits there have been problems in the past. “To create resilience within the supply chain, pay is something that companies need to look at,” she says. “But one of the challenges is that our members work on margins of less than 1.5%.”

Facilities for drivers in distribution centres and on the road are inadequate, with around 1,400 parking spaces needed for lorries. “Not all driving jobs require staying overnight but where they do we need to make sure drivers have access to shower and toilet facilities,” she adds.

Yet the supply chain crisis is not just about delays moving goods around the country. Labour shortages are blighting many other parts of the economy, where high numbers of non-UK staff worked long hours, often for low pay, before Brexit. This is also limiting the availability of products in shops.

These pressures are most keenly felt in the food and drink industry. A major new cross-industry report commissioned by trade organisations including the National Farmers Union and the Food and Drink Federation estimates there are in excess of 400,000 unfilled posts in the entire food and drink industry, from farms to meat processing plants to restaurant kitchens.

This is causing pinch points throughout the food system. There are warnings that as many as 70,000 pigs are stranded on farms and some healthy animals may have to be culled because there are not enough workers in meat processing plants to prepare pork products.

There are warnings that as many as 70,000 pigs are stranded on farms and some healthy animals may have to be culled
There are warnings that as many as 70,000 pigs are stranded on farms and some healthy animals may have to be culled. Photograph: Bruno Guerreiro/Getty Images

Last week McDonald’s revealed it had run out of milkshakes and bottled drinks. This came after Nando’s was forced to close 50 restaurants due to a shortage of chicken. KFC pulled some menu items and dairy giant Arla cut back on milk deliveries, while publicans worried about running out of some beers over the bank holiday weekend. Delays have also hit medical supplies, with GPs ordered to ration vials used for blood tests.

Some farms are having to dump crops. Barfoots, a major fresh produce company based in Sussex, has been forced to throw away between 500 and 600 tonnes of courgettes this season because it couldn’t find the workers to process them. “It’s soul-destroying for the growers,” says Julian Marks, the group’s managing director. “At the moment we’re just keeping our head above water. We are running on about 10% to 15% short [of staff] on most days.”

The company, which grows vegetables on 3,200 hectares (8,000 acres) in the UK, is not just short of seasonal agricultural workers. “At the moment we’re struggling to find tractor drivers, machine operators and quality controllers. We’re finding it exceptionally hard to find people,” says Marks. “There are 65 vacancies out of a total workforce of 450. We never run at that level.”

GPs have been ordered to ration vials used for blood tests.
GPs have been ordered to ration vials used for blood tests. Photograph: Giuseppe Lami/EPA

Many of the firm’s eastern European workers, he claims, have not returned because they don’t feel welcome in the UK, and high employment rates in the south-east are making it hard to recruit. “We are out there. We are looking. We are searching. But people are not coming forward. There are enough other options,” he says.

The government has responded to the crisis by calling for employers to invest more in the domestic workforce. But Labour points out that the government’s failure to support apprenticeship training before and during the pandemic has created a skills gap. Last week, official figures showed the number of people starting an apprenticeship had fallen by 58,000 over the past two years, a drop of 19%.

Shadow business secretary Ed Miliband says: “From car production under threat to fruit lying rotten in fields to warnings of empty shelves, businesses and unions are telling the government these problems are only going to grow unless ministers get a grip.”

Marks, who has been at Barfoots for 16 years, says he would like to offer higher pay but food suppliers have been squeezed by supermarkets. The lowest-paid are on around £10 an hour. “We have been pared to the bone by incessant price wars and the drive to always be the cheapest,” he says. “I would be absolutely delighted to pay more if I was able to pass that cost on up through the chain.”

While unions, industry groups and the government agree wages need to rise and conditions improve, they disagree about the means. The TUC believes the crisis shows that government needs to empower unions to negotiate on behalf of workers in the lowest-paid jobs. TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady says the crisis has not come out of thin air. “It’s the result of wages and conditions being driven down in sectors like food production for years,” she says. “If we want to build a more resilient labour market we must end this race to the bottom.”

There is still much union support for proposals in the last Labour manifesto to allow for sector-wide collective bargaining, with employers legally obliged to enter into negotiations to set pay and conditions. O’Grady says that this happens in other countries. “Governments across the world, from America to New Zealand, have recognised that collective bargaining is the best way to level up pay and employment standards. It’s high time our government did too.”

The Department for Work and Pensions says companies should make employment more attractive through offering training, careers options and wage increases. “We’re working closely with industry to address sector challenges, which are similarly being faced by other countries around the world,” it says.

Change cannot come soon enough for workers in the parts of the British economy where stagnant wages, grim conditions and long hours have sapped morale for decades. Hughes is preparing to drive out of the loading bay: he started at 1am and won’t finish until later in the afternoon when he pulls up to sleep. “I love this job but I hate the way drivers are treated,” he says. “We have to shit and eat in our cabs. Sometimes you have to piss in your trousers because you can’t pull over in time. That’s the real story. That’s the dark side to this job.”