In a meeting organised by the Cabinet Office last Thursday, Tesco bosses revealed a shortfall of 800 lorry drivers and called on ministers to make it easier to bring in workers from abroad.
Tesco also warned that panic buying could be “far worse” than at the start of the pandemic, according to the retail magazine The Grocer.
The concerns were raised during the first meeting of the government’s new food and drink supply chain task force. Several retailers have been selected by the government to help find a solution to the labour crisis hitting the sector.
The retail giant told Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) officials that it was struggling to fill lorry driver vacancies despite increasing wages and added that its logistics partner Eddie Stobart was also operating with a similar shortfall of transport workers.
Andrew Woolfenden, the supermarket’s UK distribution and fulfilment director, said the labour shortages were industry-wide and described attempts by companies to recruit from the limited pool of drivers as “like moving deckchairs around”, ITV reported.
Mr Woolfenden added: “Our concern is that the pictures of empty shelves will get 10 times worse by Christmas and then we’ll get panic buying.”
The Road Haulage Association and Logistics UK estimate there is a need for between 75,000 and 100,000 new recruits.
Logistics UK has asked the government to provide 10,000 temporary visas to plug the worker gap until more drivers can be trained in the UK. However, politicians are so far resisting calls for this short-term fix.
Tesco’s intervention came as the president of the National Farmers’ Union, Minette Batters, also warned of the return of panic buying.
Ms Batters wrote a letter, signed by 12 food and drink trade bodies, to Boris Johnson, saying: “The entire UK food supply chain from farm supply to retail outlet are united in calling for an emergency ‘Covid recovery visa’ to open up new recruitment opportunities as a matter of urgency.
“Without it, more shelves will go empty and consumers will panic buy to try to get through the winter.
“The supply chain will be critically damaged beyond recovery if it cannot overcome the immediate crisis. We must have an urgent commitment from you to enable the industry to recruit from outside the UK over the next 12 months to get us through the winter and to help us save Christmas.”
A Tesco spokesperson said: “We have good availability, with deliveries arriving at our stores and distribution centres across the UK every day. While the industry-wide shortage of HGV drivers has led to some distribution challenges, we’re working hard to address these and to plan for the months ahead, so customers can get everything they need.”
A Defra spokesperson said: “The UK has a highly resilient food supply chain, which has coped well in responding to unprecedented challenges.”
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