Inside the UK food shortages: Why Nando's and Sainsbury's are running out
Beyond Brexit and the 'pingdemic' there are some more deep-seated reasons behind UK food shortages emptying restaurants and supermarkets
by: Liam Kirkaldy
18 Aug 2021
Very little can get between Britain and its Nando’s. The chain of chicken restaurants has reached meme levels of cultural permeation, become the subject of political photo ops, the merits of its spicy sauces debated as fiercely as the correct way to make a proper cup of tea or Britain’s place in Europe. And now the chicken has run out.
Images of missing stock in UK supermarkets began to emerge from June 2021 onwards. Rows and rows of bare shelves. Fridges left unfilled. Bemused shoppers, standing questioning with empty baskets. Slowly but steadily the frustrated muttering around UK food shortages made its way on to social media feeds and into national newspapers, as warnings of a “summer of disruption” to the UK’s supply chain became reality.
BP was forced to close petrol stations because it didn’t have enough fuel to sell. Pubs were left unable to source beer. Iceland, faced with losing 1,000 staff to self-isolation, warned it may need to temporarily shut some of its stores. The British Meat Processors Association went even further, warning that the UK’s food supply chain was “right on the edge of failing”. Fifty Nando’s restaurants have been forced to close due to chicken shortages. The official Nando’s Twitter account has been apologising to customers by saying the UK supply chain is “having a bit of a ‘mare“.
As the summer rolled on and the situation continued to escalate, press reports have suggested the government was poised to formally request Army assistance – to fill shelves, rather than quell unrest – amid claims military personnel would be housed in hotels to allow them to work extended hours to maintain supplies.
This, we were told, was the reality of the so-called “pingdemic”. High numbers of workers were forced to self-isolate – the total reached a record high of more than 600,000 in late July – and so food and other products weren’t reaching shelves.
The government, forced into action, responded by announcing pandemic restrictions would be eased so that double-vaccinated people would no longer be legally required to self-isolate if they are identified as a close contact of a Covid-19 case, and to allow delivery drivers to work longer shifts to help goods arrive on time.
But while the pandemic exacerbated the problem, the causes of the current disruption go much deeper than high numbers of people being forced to self-isolate. Weaknesses in the UK’s supply chain have been apparent for some time and, while the pingdemic may have brought problems to the fore, underlying structural problems have been around for much longer.
Supermarkets are always the worst clients to work for. To them, you’re lower than an animal
Mike, a long-haul trucker
At its heart, the problem is a simple one: lorries transport almost everything we consume, but there aren’t enough drivers. That means anything with a short shelf life is most likely to be impacted, and that creates the food shortages we’re seeing today. But the issue extends to any product that gets delivered by truck or HGV.
One trucker, Mike, typically drives long-haul on trips to and from Europe that can last a couple of weeks at a time. He says talk in the sector is consistent with claims the UK faces a shortage of between 60,000 and 100,000 drivers. Part of that is down to Brexit, with many EU drivers put off coming to the UK because of new bureaucracy at the border, but there is also an issue with disillusionment pushing drivers out of the workforce. High levels of stress, bad rest places, queues at borders and difficult employers have all culminated in people leaving the industry.
Mike said: “There are a huge number of drivers in the UK who simply don’t want to drive for a living any more, due to the terms and conditions. Enough people have the licences but they don’t want to do the work as there’s a lack of good jobs with employers who look out for you and pay properly.
“The main things that annoy me about it are, essentially, the way you’re treated and spoken to, particularly by the supermarkets, which are always the worst clients to work for. To them, you’re lower than an animal.
“The money could be better but, to be honest, if you’re willing to put the time in it isn’t bad. I do European work where I’m often away for a fortnight at a time. In any other industry where you’re away for that long, like in oil, you get a similar amount of time off afterwards. With driving you’re expected to work for two weeks then have two days off then go out for another fortnight.
“It’s ludicrously unreasonable in my opinion, but it’s just the way of it if you want to get out of the UK, which many drivers do because once you’re on the continent everything is much better. The parking is free, the food available on the motorway is much nicer and healthier and, crucially, you aren’t treated as scum in the same way. People are far less snooty there and respect the job you’re doing.”
Disillusioned HGV drivers are leaving the industry. Image: Matthew Horwood/Getty Images
And while Mike says more drivers are either staying on the continent or looking at other work, the Road Haulage Association has warned it will take up to 18 months to train new recruits. Wages have gone up in response to the demand, with agency pay for delivery to supermarkets rising from around£12 per hour at the turn of the year to just under £30, in some cases. Meanwhile, some larger supermarkets are offering cash up front, as a signing-on bonus.
Yet Mike is dubious whether these efforts will make much difference, given the level of antipathy among drivers towards the supermarkets. As he puts it: “I’m sure there are relatively inexperienced lads who’ll see it as decent opportunity but no one I know is remotely interested.” In any case, given the offers are being made to those already working as drivers, they are unlikely to help grow the overall pool of labour available.
It is quite possible food shortages will get worse before they get better. David Visick, from the Federation of Wholesale Distributors, says that the reopening of pubs and restaurants is part of the problem.
This won’t go away when the summer ends
David Visick, Federation of Wholesale Distributors
“You have to remember hospitality has been pretty much closed. So, you have three things that suddenly hit – fewer people working in those low-paid jobs [as drivers], the need to isolate, and every single pub and restaurant being open again and in need of distribution. That’s why you’ve seen shortages and missing stock.
“The media would like to say there’s a shortage of food – there isn’t. It’s just increasingly difficult to get everything to everybody who wants it when they want it. We’re used to abundance, and you expect to be able to purchase from a choice of six different types of apple. But there are also, to an extent, stories about shortages creating more shortages, and some people may have purchased more than they need to, which doesn’t help.”
Visick added: “It’s all about forecasting. You have to try to work out how much food needs to be in which part of the country at what time, and all these factors have made that extremely difficult. What you’d normally do is look at previous years, but that doesn’t work because last year was a disaster for hospitality but brilliant for retail. This year isn’t like 2019 either though, it’s different again – you have people staying at home, people on furlough, staycations. There’s no precedent for it and that’s why it’s getting difficult to get everything to where it should be all the time.”
Wholesalers have been hit by the same problems as supermarkets, Visick says, meaning food shortages have gone beyond big chains and into the smaller shops, which often provide a lifeline to rural communities, or for those living in urban ‘food deserts’. Beyond those smaller outlets, wholesale is also the main source of supply to the ‘critical sector’, which provides food to hospitals, schools and care homes. And, while these institutions will be prioritised, directing limited supplies to schools and hospitals will have further knock-on effects.
“This won’t go away when the summer ends,” Visick says. “Schools will go back soon, and that is always a pinch point, and then you have Christmas after that. If you think how many people missed Christmas last year, an awful lot of people will want to get out to pubs and restaurants in November and December and that is always the busiest time of year – even busier than August. So, if we haven’t got a solution by then, that’s when we will genuinely be starting to talk about shortages, rather than missing stock here and there.”
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