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Food shortages: Is Boris Johnson treating the UK like one big Tesco?

Ex-Tesco CEO Sir David Lewis has been appointed government supply chain adviser. Could treating the UK like one big Tesco superstore help get food back on our shelves?

Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak unload crates at Tesco

Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak visit a Tesco Distribution Centre. The Prime Minister Boris Johnson and the Chancellor Rishi Sunak visit a Tesco Distribution Centre in Erith, South East London, during Covid-19. Picture by Andrew Parsons / No 10 Downing Street

The UK is facing shortages on a massive scale, with one in six adults saying they have been unable to buy essential food items in the last fortnight, according to the Office for National Statistics.

In a bid to save the UK’s food supply crisis by Christmas, prime minister Boris Johnson has appointed ex-Tesco boss Sir David Lewis as the government’s supply chain adviser.

Lewis held the position of CEO at Tesco for six years, and spent 27 years at Unilever before that, so it would seem that he knows a thing or two about getting products on shelves.

“There are currently global supply issues which we are working with industry to mitigate and Dave brings a wealth of experience which will help us continue to protect our businesses and supply chains,” said the prime minister.

The UK’s empty shelves can be blamed in part on Covid-19 disrupting an intricate network of global supply chains where the slightest problem throws the whole system. Brexit has multiplied the chaos, preventing migrant workers from filling vacancies required to pick, package and deliver food.

So with Boris Johnson “begging a leading businessman to help him fix shortages and the Christmas supply chain crisis,” as Labour’s shadow business minister Seema Malhotra put it, we asked around to find out whether calling on a supermarket boss will work. 

He does know how to get food on shelves….

Lewis’s experience means he knows supply and demand, which can be scaled up to a national level, explains Tom Reddy who has driven lorries across Europe for 15 years.

To understand demand – what needs to go on the shelves of a supermarket or what is needed to feed a nation – bosses can look at the data for the previous years to see buying habits. 

“Dave Lewis saw Tesco through the early stages of the pandemic – and the supermarkets adapted so unbelievably well to the change in demand through the pandemic,” he explains.

“It gives me hope for the first time that someone is actually going to make some real changes and offer some real advice. Whether or not they listen to him is another question.”

With the UK short of 100,000 HGV drivers, the government has confirmed plans to speed up the process of obtaining an HGV driver licence. However for Reddy, this will make very little difference to the conditions drivers have to put up with that drives many to leave the industry. 

“I think what’s going to happen is they’ll throw a load of people through the tests, and they’re going to do a few months in the job and realise what a nightmare of a job it is, and then they’re going to leave,” he said.

What we need, Reddy believes, is a societal-wide attitude change that starts to value vocational careers that don’t require a university degree – such as HGV driving or working in a supermarket, so that people are attracted to those careers and stay in them.  

“Dave Lewis will understand that, but Mr Johnson and Mr Shapps won’t because they’ve never had a real job in their life,” he said.

But the problems run deeper than stock management and simply hiring more staff

The problems causing the UK’s empty shelves cannot be solved by any amount of better management explains supply-chain researcher and LSE academic Nikhil Datta.

“Managing the economy, managing the entire retail sector and entire food sector is going to be fundamentally different from managing a business,” Datta said.

Brexit has introduced a barrage of regulatory barriers, customs and procedures that mean what would previously have been frictionless trade, is now, well, tricky. 

Getting goods and products over the border and into the UK now requires checks and paperwork that are not only financially costly, but also take time, and added to by a shortage of HGV drivers to physically bring goods to the UK, are causing massive delays. 

Furthermore, unlike a supermarket, the UK is no longer free to hire as many, or few, workers as it desires, after free immigration ended with Brexit.

“If I’m in an EU country at the moment, I can essentially hire from any other EU country. That’s not really possible in the UK anymore, there are limits, to an extent, which means that if there are shortages in certain areas of employment, you can’t necessarily easily fill those gaps with domestic workers,” Datta explained.

The UK is currently facing a labour gap of 1.1 million workers to fill record job vacancies, caused in part by lower migration and younger and older people leaving the labour market.  

Datta said what might help is improving relations with the EU before a full-blown trade war erupts. 

“If the government really wanted to do something about the supply chain issues, they would start by looking at improving our trading relationship with the European Union,” he said.

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