Shoppers faced with gaps on shelves as supermarkets battle with Brexit red tape

Fresh fruit and vegetable items listed as out of stock on some grocers’ websites as government warns border issues will get worse before they get better

Ben Chapman
Tuesday 12 January 2021 18:38 GMT
Alok Sharma tells public not to panic buy food

Shoppers have been faced with gaps on supermarket shelves as retailers and suppliers grapple with Brexit red tape and staff absences due to Covid-19.

Fresh fruit and vegetable items have been listed as out of stock on some supermarket websites while shoppers have posted images on social media of empty shelves in a number of stores.

The government has told consumers to expect more disruption as routes into and out of the UK become busier over the coming days after the quieter new year period which has already been marred by border delays and confusion over new trading rules.

Online supermarket Ocado became the first big retailer to warn of shortages of some products this week.

It emailed customers to tell then that there may be “an increase of missing items and substitutions over the next few weeks”.

A spokesperson for the company said: “Staff absences across the supply chain may lead to an increase in product substitutions for a small number of customers as some suppliers consolidate their offering to maintain output.”

Dmitry Grozoubinski, founder of consultancy ExplainTrade, told The Independent that after a period of disruption, major retailers and their suppliers would resolve the problems and stocks would be replenished.

“Two things are going on, both of which come back to the fact that there is now a trade border between the UK and the EU 27 that effectively wasn’t there before.

“Crossing the border requires a lot of paperwork so in the short term there are problems because freight companies and businesses either don’t know what paperwork they need or can't get it because the companies that would process it for them are over capacity. It’s a supply and demand issue.

“At the same time, businesses are worried about what’s going to happen at the border so they're staying away and not providing freight services to the UK.”

Problems with border bureaucracy have been solved all around the world but companies need to go through a “learning process” in the UK context, he said.

“The rule book came out six hours before the end of the transition period so companies have not had any time to learn it," Mr Grozoubinski added.

“A year from now you won't have that problem because businesses will have learned. You won't be seeing empty supermarket shelves, but paperwork costs time and money. There will be a cost impact and certain business models that rely on there being no border [between the EU and UK] will disappear.”

Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove has warned that problems at the ports are likely to escalate before they improve.

He said on Friday: “So far disruption at the border hasn’t been too profound, but it is the case that in the weeks ahead we expect that there will be significant additional disruption, particularly on the Dover-Calais route.

“It is our responsibility in government to make sure that business is as ready as possible, and hauliers and traders have already done a lot but we have to redouble our efforts to communicate the precise paperwork that is required in order to make sure that trade can flow freely.”

The government will be stepping up its communication with businesses to make sure they know what is required, Mr Gove said.

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