Boris Johnson tells business leaders it is their responsibility to prevent Christmas food shortages

Prime minister rejects pleas for visas to stock festive shelves – insisting that the ‘government can’t step in and fix the supply chain’

Rob Merrick
Deputy Political Editor
Monday 04 October 2021 11:06
‘This Christmas will be better than last’, says Boris Johnson amid supply issues

Boris Johnson has told business leaders that avoiding Christmas food shortages is their responsibility, claiming it is not the government’s job to “fix” supply problems.

As the Conservative party conference opened, the prime minister admitted to having known for months that the haulage industry was in trouble – and, strikingly, admitted that may continue into the festive season.

But, asked if more emergency visas will be issued to step up supplies, he turned the tables on industry, arguing it is “fundamentally up to them to work out the way ahead”.

“In the end, those businesses, those industries, are the best solvers of their own supply chain issues – government can’t step in and fix every bit of the supply chain,” Mr Johnson told broadcasters.

Liz Truss, the foreign secretary, underlined the message, claiming the prime minister should escape blame even if people are unable to buy what they want at Christmas.

“I don’t believe in a command and control economy, so I don’t believe the prime minister is responsible for what’s in the shops,” she insisted.

Although Mr Johnson did not fully rule out further help – after the weekend U-turn that saw visas for HGV drivers extended – the stance is a blow to business groups who are pleading for the government to step in.

The British Chambers of Commerce said it is the government’s role to plug labour shortages, calling for visas to bring in EU workers for care, hospitality, manufacturing and construction.

Calling for “clarity and a plan”, its director general Shevaun Haviland, said: “Let’s sit down now together and look at the other sectors where we now there are issues very close, coming down the line.

“Let’s try to get a plan in place for those – so we don’t get to another crisis point,” she told BBC Radio 4.

Labour accused the prime minister of “taking the British people for fools” and that shortages are not a price worth paying to secure the high wage, high skill economy everyone wants.

“We won’t get there by keeping shelves empty and forecourts dry – and what we urgently need now are more HGV drivers,” said Bridget Phillipson, the shadow Treasury chief secretary.

“The shortfall of skilled workers we’re facing is a direct result of the Conservatives lack of planning and incompetence.”

Alison Williams, a commissioner on the cross-party UK Trade and Business Commission, and global head of data at DunnHumby, accused ministers of trying to “wash their hands” of the problems.

“Countless businesses have told us about the problems caused by the government’s threadbare Brexit deal. It is an undeniable factor in the current supply crisis,” she said.

Mr Johnson also sparked a row over the future of more than 100,000 pigs at risk of being slaughtered because a dearth of butchers has created a back-up on farms.

“I hate to break it to you, but I am afraid our food processing industry does involve the killing of a lot of animals,” he told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show, downplaying the problem.

Nick Allen, chief executive of the British Meat Processors Association, described the feared cull as “heartbreaking”, adding: “It is an incredibly distressing situation to find yourself in.”

The clashes came as ministers shift their position, having initially denied any link between Brexit and the staff and supply shortages.

Speaking in Manchester, Mr Johnson switched tack, calling the problems a “period of adjustment” that will deliver the higher wages that Leave voters wanted, when they backed EU withdrawal.

Mr Johnson was asked, by Mr Marr, whether he meant “we, as a country, have to go through some bumps, some shortages, some queues on the way and that, folks, is what you voted for”.

He replied: “When people voted for change in 2016, and when people voted for change again in 2019, as they did, they voted for the end of a broken model of the UK economy that relied on low wages and low skill and chronic low productivity; and we’re moving away from that.”

Mr Johnson was also accused of misrepresenting official data when claiming that “wages are finally going up for the low paid”.

It was pointed out that the Office for National Statistics had found that “wages are not keeping pace with inflation”, so that, “in real terms over the last three months wages have gone down, not up”.

Meanwhile, the Petrol Retailers Association warned that, while supply is now “plentiful” in the north, there are still major shortages in London and the south east.

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