Half-empty shelves and signs reading “We’re hiring!” plastered on shop windows. These have become familiar sights to British consumers in recent weeks, as a shortage of staff and persistent supply chain issues continue to cause disruption.
Key supplies are increasingly hard to come by, and delivery times are uncertain. Restaurants have removed dishes from their menus because they simply do not know when the ingredients are going to arrive, and industry bodies are warning that the situation will only get worse if something does not change, and soon.
How did we get here? The problem is largely a combination of pandemic-related issues exacerbated by Brexit. Key industries like agriculture, hospitality, and logistics employ high numbers of non-British nationals, many of whom went home at the beginning of the pandemic. Even as things begin to return to something approaching normality, Brexit uncertainty has meant that few have returned.
Many will have found employment in their home countries and may not wish to return to a country where their future is far from assured. To make matters worse, the so-called “pingdemic” – a rash of contact-tracing alerts from the NHS Covid-19 app that has caused mass self-isolations up and down the country – has further depleted the workforce.
Take the shortage of Heavy Goods Vehicle (HGV) drivers, for example. The Road Haulage Association estimates that Britain has a deficit of around 100,000 of these. The knock-on effects of this lack are profound, particularly now. The pandemic has, perhaps irrevocably, changed the way we spend.
Online shopping is up, and high street spending is down, despite a brief honeymoon period when restrictions lifted in July. Any rise in e-commerce by its nature requires more HGV drivers, but this increase has come at a time when they are in short supply. Furthermore, many existing drivers are approaching retirement age, leaving the sector facing a further exodus of staff in the future.
Of the two main solutions being discussed, re-hiring European workers, or training up Brits to replace them, the government has leaned more towards the latter. In a statement issued back in July, it pledged its support for the industry, promising that it would streamline the process of acquiring the licences required to drive HGVs and create more overnight parking spaces for vehicles. But many in the industry feel that this is not enough.
The DVSA, the body responsible for granting HGV licences, has a backlog of tests until early 2022, but the problems facing the logistics industry are immediate. It will take time to train up sufficient British drivers to replace the European ones lost at the beginning of 2020. In the meantime, industry bodies such as Logistics UK are pressing the government to introduce a similar temporary work visa scheme to that which allowed foreign workers to work in agriculture this summer.
Until now, the public has largely borne this inconvenience with minimal grumbling, but an additional set of checks on goods from abroad coming into force in October risks making the situation intolerable. It has been warned that if nothing is done to solve the short-term issues by the time the new checks come in, this shortage will seriously impact Christmas.
Fears that government Covid-19 restrictions would “cancel Christmas” occupied public discourse for several weeks last year. Mr Johnson must surely wish to avoid a re-run, as his government is dealing with enough. It is uncertain yet whether he will heed industry demands to issue temporary visas to European drivers, but he would do well to think of something before the public’s patience runs out.
Image: Nicole Wu via Palatinate Illustrations