UK lorry driver crisis could lead to food shortages, industry leaders warn

Prime minister urged to introduce temporary visas for European drivers

An employee selects items of shopping for home delivery at the Tesco Basildon Pitsea Extra supermarket, operated by Tesco Plc, in Basildon, U.K., on Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2015. Many European food retailers are coming to terms with persistently low inflation as well as consumers who remain frugal yet purchase food more frequently. Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg
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Britain could face gaps on supermarket shelves this summer and an "unimaginable" collapse of supply chains after the pandemic and Brexit led to a shortage of more than 100,000 truck drivers, industry leaders have warned.

In a letter sent to Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the haulage industry has called for his personal intervention to allow access to European HGV drivers by introducing temporary worker visas and to add them to a "shortage occupation list".

The government has said the industry should look to hire local drivers.

"Supermarkets are already reporting that they are not receiving their expected food stocks and, as a result, there is considerable wastage," said Richard Burnett, the chief executive of the Road Haulage Association.

Britain's supermarket industry, led by Tesco, Sainsbury's, Asda and Morrisons, relies on an army of drivers and warehouse workers to bring fresh produce from the fields of Europe to its shelves.

Britain's logistics industry had been one of the most vocal in the run-up to Britain's departure from the European Union, warning that truck drivers would not want to come to Britain if checks and friction increased at the border.

The pandemic has compounded the problem after many European drivers living in Britain returned to their home country.

The letter said intervention from the government was now the only way to avert "critical supply chains failing at an unprecedented and unimaginable levels".

It said the approaching summer holidays, the continued unlocking of the economy and spikes in demand for food and drink created by hot weather and major sporting events would exacerbate the problem. Christmas preparation would also be hit.

In response a government spokesman said progress had been made in hiring and training.

"Our new 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," he said.

The letter was signed by the CEOs of a raft of logistics groups, including Eddie Stobart, Wincanton and XPO Logistics, as well as the heads of industry groups including the Food and Drink Federation, British Frozen Food Federation, Cold Chain Federation, British Beer and Pub Association and the British Meat Producers Association.

Dover remains the UK’s most important link with the EU, the country’s biggest trade partner; however, the amount of tonnage has declined by 14 per cent since the Brexit vote in 2016, according to Department for Transport data.

Other ports have gained business since then with Liverpool’s traffic growing 7.6 per cent and London Medway surging 43 per cent.