A perfect storm of COVID-19 impacts, Brexit restrictions on foreign labor, industry structural changes and an overhaul of the UK self-employment tax rules means a severe lack of trained truck drivers is threatening food supply chains, including in the seafood industry.
This comes amid calls to Boris Johnson's government by Premier Foods, one of Britain's largest food suppliers, to consider calling in the army to ensure food supplies can be maintained over the coming months and during the looming heavy-demand Christmas period.
Estimates put the immediate shortage of truck drivers at around 30,000.
"It's incredibly pressing," CEO of the Cold Chain Federation Shane Brennan told IntraFish.
The trade group has been leading calls to make it easier to train drivers and lure back those who have left the profession, some citing a lack of respect from depot owners and the general public.
Overall it is calculated that the UK road haulage industry needs as many as another 70,000 drivers in the longer term.
The crux of the problem is that over the past 20 years the United Kingdom has been overly reliant on an ageing, non UK-based workforce to maintain supply chains.
The issue has been dragged into sharper focus since the 2016 Brexit referendum but particularly so during the past six weeks as the foodservice industry tries to return to some kind of post-pandemic normalcy, leading to failures in supply chain deliveries.
Concern is mounting about the effects of higher demand in coastal towns particularly, as the UK's "freedom day" approaches on July 19 when all COVID-19 restrictions are lifted and with millions of British holidaymakers staying at home again this year because of restrictions still in place on overseas travel.
"We are very concerned that it is going to be hard to maintain the kinds of level of supply across the food supply chain that people are used to," Brennan said.
Work was done by the main transport service providers, government and others to help the seafood industry through a logistics crisis at the start of of the year as the United Kingdom moved to trading arrangements outside the European Union.
But this does not mean this is the end of the matter, Brennan said, highlighting anecdotal evidence of 15-20 percent increases in driver pay rates and drivers moving between employers from week to week as they chase higher wages and better conditions.
"If the seafood industry has been a relatively strong place recently nonetheless it is going to suffer like everyone else."
A barrage of issues
Against this background, foodservice suppliers are struggling to understand the complexity of the range of factors at work.
Earlier in the year there were reports of EU-based truck drivers finding work elsewhere on the continent to avoid snarl-ups at UK ports following Brexit and being put off by unfavorable changes to rules governing self-employment in the UK.
Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak it was estimated that non-UK drivers accounted for 15-20 percent of the total UK driver workforce.
But there appears to be more to it than that.
In previous times international haulage companies would bring in goods from the continent and then carry out up to four contract deliveries within the United Kingdom before returning to their European bases.
Added to this, many UK drivers have decided to retire or found less stressful and more predictable local delivery work for supermarket chains, which became plentiful during the pandemic because of sharp increases in online ordering.
At the same time European drivers returned to home to be close to their families during the COVID crisis and it is unclear whether they will ever return to their former jobs.
Assuming European drivers applied for settled status in the United Kingdom before the end of 2020, they may be allowed back to drive in the UK, but if they didn't they cannot return under post-Brexit rules, which also bar those that have not worked in the United Kingdom previously.
Time for military intervention?
So does the UK government really need to call in the military to bail out the food supply sector?
"We are not at that point right now, but I think it has to be part of the conversation because if we carry on through the summer with the struggles we have got in the supply chain you have to ask yourself where is a readily qualified pool of qualified drivers," Brennan said.
How ready are military personnel to drive articulated trucks and how would be deployed, he added.
Calls to bring in the army may not be practical given the scale of the driver shortage, agrees Richard Harrow, CEO of the British Frozen Foods Federation (BFFF).
"But it just goes to show how serious the situation is. We have got almost a perfect storm of circumstances, which has created this shortage of drivers," Harrow said.
Transport costs have become a major concern for Andrew Kuyk, director general of the UK Seafood Industry Alliance, a trade group representing the UK's largest seafood processors
As official discussions take place to try get a handle on what is happening and what can be done, there needs to be a range of solutions some delivered by government and others that need to be addressed by industry, Kuyk said.
"Yes, it's real and it's not going away quickly and there are further pressures in the pipeline: the reopening of hospitality, summer holidays and all that are going to make things worse, and then you are fairly quickly into the build up to Christmas."
The Road Haulage Association (RHA) trade group representing the UK trucking industry is calling for a series of measures to be introduced in aim to tackle the issue.
These include a seasonal visa scheme for qualified truck drivers under a coronavirus recovery plan, preventing the wholesale extension of driver hours, a program to encourage drivers to return to the profession, giving drivers taking truck licensing tests priority over other types of motorists and revising the UK's skilled occupation list to include truck drivers under immigration rules.
While drivers are the most immediate shortages there is a lack of skilled workers across the food supply chain from trained engineers to food safety technicians, a situation not helped by an exodus of EU workers, Harrow noted.
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