Government cannot ‘wave a magic wand’ to solve supply chain issues – Sunak

Industry leaders have warned that popular Christmas party items could be missing from supermarket shelves amid labour shortages.

Geraldine Scott
Monday 04 October 2021 14:23 BST
Members of the armed forces at Buncefield oil depot, known as the Hertfordshire Oil Storage Terminal, in Hemel Hempstead (Joe Giddens/PA)
Members of the armed forces at Buncefield oil depot, known as the Hertfordshire Oil Storage Terminal, in Hemel Hempstead (Joe Giddens/PA) (PA Wire)

There will be gaps on supermarket shelves this Christmas, industry leaders have warned, as Rishi Sunak said he cannot “wave a magic wand” to make supply chain problems go away.

The Chancellor said the Government will do all it can to “mitigate” global supply issues, but he conceded that there is disruption and did not rule out Christmas being affected.

It comes as around 200 military personnel – half of them drivers – are being deployed to the roads for the first time to help deliver petrol to forecourts.

Around 22% of filling stations in London and the South East still do not have fuel, according to executive director of the Petrol Retailers Association Gordon Balmer.

And despite ministers insisting the situation at the pumps, which has seen queues and panic buying, is easing, Operation Escalin launched on Monday.

Members of the armed forces arrived at the Buncefield oil depot in Hemel Hempstead to help deliver fuel to filling stations, with soldiers, in uniform and wearing face masks, spotted walking near the gates to the Hertfordshire Oil Storage Terminal.

Workers at Buncefield oil depot, known as the Hertfordshire Oil Storage Terminal, in Hemel Hempstead (Joe Giddens/PA) (PA Wire)

But Downing Street said the speed at which the crisis abates will depend on demand.

A number of industries are seeing labour shortages, including in meat processing.

And it has prompted warnings that Christmas favourites such as pigs in blankets may not be available for shoppers this year.

On a visit to a Network Rail site in Manchester with Mr Sunak on Monday, the Prime Minister said the supply chain issues were “a function of the world economy, particularly the UK economy, coming back to life after Covid”.

“There is a shortage of lorry drivers actually around the world, from Poland to the United States, and even in China they are short of lorry drivers,” he said.

And he added: “I think what we’re seeing is the recovery of the economy.

“We’ve now got the fastest-growing economy in the G7 and I think we’ve got unemployment way lower than people forecast, you’ve got jobs being created the whole time.

“What we want to see are high-wage, high-skilled jobs and I think business is doing a fantastic job of investing in apprenticeships, investing in skills, and that’s the way to go for the UK.

“On things like the road haulage industry, the thing to do is make the job more attractive, invest in the truck stops and invest in higher wages as well.”

However, No 10 said there was no “hard deadline” for when a transition to the “high wage, high-skilled economy” the Prime Minister promised would be complete.

The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: “It’s not something we would have a hard deadline for, considering it will cover a number of different sectors.

“Obviously, what we’ll want to do is support sectors when needed, to help make that transition as you’re seeing us do with things like HGV drivers currently, and other sectors such as poultry, for example.”

Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Chancellor Rishi Sunak during a visit to a construction site in Manchester (Phil Noble/PA) (PA Wire)

Earlier, Mr Sunak told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “We’re seeing supply disruption, not just here but in lots of different places, and there are things we can try and mitigate, and we are.

“But we can’t wave a magic wand. There’s nothing I can do about the decision by a country in Asia to shut down a port because of a coronavirus outbreak.”

Pig farmers protested outside the Conservative Party conference on Monday as industry leaders called for a Covid recovery visa to allow firms to recruit from outside the UK.

Pig farmers protest outside the Conservative Party conference in Manchester (Stefan Rousseau/PA) (PA Wire)

Meanwhile, Nick Allen, chief executive of the British Meat Processors Association, said he was “surprised” that Mr Johnson appeared to be unaware of problems facing pig farmers when questioned on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show on Sunday.

Mr Allen told Sky News that Christmas turkeys are likely to be from the Continent this year due to labour shortages in Britain following Brexit and added that some foods, such as pigs in blankets, may not be available.

“We’re not saying that there’s not going to be food on the table at Christmas, but we’re struggling to put the party food together – the pigs in blankets, the netting of gammons,” he said.

However, the chairman of supermarket Morrisons said concerns have been “slightly overblown”.

Andy Higginson told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “There are logistical issues at the moment and those are well publicised and slightly overblown.

Empty shelves in the meat aisle of a branch of Tesco in Liverpool (Peter Byrne/PA) (PA Wire)

“Supply chains in the UK are incredibly efficient and I am sure we will be able to deliver a great Christmas for customers as we go through.”

The Prime Minister has repeatedly refused to rule out shortages in the wider economy in the run-up to Christmas.

As well as an estimated shortfall of 100,000 HGV drivers, businesses from meat producers to retailers have warned of empty shelves if the shortages are not addressed.

Mr Johnson acknowledged the country is going through a “period of adjustment” following Brexit, which has cut off the supply of labour from the EU.

But he insisted he is not prepared to resolve the situation by pulling “the big lever marked uncontrolled immigration” to let in more foreign workers.

He said firms should ensure their employees are “decently paid” if they want to get more staff.

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