Food shortages ‘permanent’ and shoppers will never again enjoy full choice of items, Britons warned

Covid and Brexit have killed off ‘just-in-time’ deliveries, says industry boss – but No 10 insists Christmas will be ‘normal’

Rob Merrick,Holly Bancroft
Friday 10 September 2021 20:38 BST
UK supermarket shortages will be permanent, trade body says

Food shortages in supermarkets and restaurants are “permanent” and shoppers will never again enjoy a full choice of items, an industry boss has told Britons.

In an extraordinary warning, the head of the Food and Drink Federation said staff shortages – triggered by a combination of Covid and Brexit – had killed off the “just-in-time” delivery model.

“I don’t think it will work again, I think we will see we are now in for permanent shortages,” Ian Wright said.

But Downing Street rejected the claim of a broken system and, in a potential hostage to fortune, predicted the shortages will be over by the festive season.

Pressed on whether the shortages will ease to allow people to enjoy a “normal Christmas”, Boris Johnson’s spokesman told The Independent: “I believe so, yes.”

The clash came as the government rebuffs calls to loosen post-Brexit immigration rules – to attract more HGV drivers, for example – insisting businesses must stop relying on EU workers.

But the hit to trade from leaving the EU and the pandemic was laid bare by new figures revealing trade with the bloc plunged in July, with exports £1.7bn lower than in July 2018 and imports down £3bn.

Worryingly, the UK is on course to fall out of Germany’s top 10 trading partners for the first time in 70 years, data issued by the German government revealed.

“The UK’s loss of importance in foreign trade is the logical consequence of Brexit. These are probably lasting effects,” said Gabriel Felbermayr, the president of the Institute for the World Economy.

In the UK, McDonald’s, Greggs, the Co-op and Ikea are just some of the big retailers that have struggled to supply products to their customers in recent weeks.

The CBI business group has warned the labour shortages behind the gaps on shelves and restaurant menus could last up to two years, without urgent government action.

The Food and Drink Federation stepped up that pressure when Mr Wright told a think tank event: “It’s going to get worse, and it’s not going to get better after getting worse any time soon.”

He then added: “The result of the labour shortages is that the just-in-time system that has sustained supermarkets, convenience stores and restaurants – so the food has arrived on shelf or in the kitchen, just when you need it – is no longer working.”

But the prime minister’s spokesman rejected the warning, saying: “We don’t recognise those claims.

“We have got highly resilient food supply chains which have coped extremely well in the face of challenges and we believe that will remain the case.”

Nevertheless, the fear of creating a bigger crisis is expected to see the government shelve full post-Brexit import controls on imports from the EU, for a second time.

The food and drink industry is short of around half a million workers, Mr Wright said, meaning it is short of about 1 in 8 of the total number of people it needs in its workforce.

The dearth was partly the result of EU nationals leaving the UK, as a result of both the pandemic and of Brexit.

The lack of lorry drivers was partly caused by them moving to online retailers and starting to deliver for Amazon and Tesco – to get better hours and pay, he said.

The latest ONS trade figures were seen as a possible indication that the UK is losing its overall competitiveness, within Europe.

In July, total exports of goods exports to the EU plunged by £900m – while, at the same time, exports to non-EU countries increased by £700m.

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