Sunday 26 September 2021 1:26 pm

Food shortages: Temporary visas 'too little, too late' to save Christmas

Retail bosses have warned the government’s temporary visas for HGV drivers falls dramatically short of what supermarkets need for Christmas, warning of shortages and disruption.

The Department for Transport announced it would make 5,000 visas available to HGV drivers and 5,500 available to poultry workers until Christmas.

For months, supermarket bosses have warned empty shelves could become the norm in the lead up to the festive period, as they struggle with a shortfall of some 100,000 HGV drivers.

Andrew Opie, director of food and sustainability at the British Retail Consortium, said the limit of 5,000 would “do little to alleviate the current shortfall.”

Supermarkets alone would need at least 15,000 drivers to operate at full capacity this autumn and to “avoid disruption or availability issues,” Opie said.

The BRC called on the government to extend the “size and scope” of the policy to drivers in all sectors of the retail sector. “Christmas is about more than just food,” Opie added.

Under the existing visa scheme, workers will now be able to come to the UK for three months in the run-up to the festive period, to provide short-term relief.

Transport secretary Grant Shapps said it was “not true” that there would be no turkeys this Christmas because of the driver shortage, speaking on Sky News on Sunday.  

However, retail bosses have warned there may be food shortages and supply issues to come.

Scotland Food & Drink chief executive, James Withers, said the move felt “more like an attempt to fix bad headlines than fix the actual problem.”

“While recognition of pressures in the haulage and poultry sector is welcome, this is a problem throughout the food supply chain and I seriously doubt that 10,000 three-month visas are going to cut it. It may help the driver situation a little but it won’t address the chronic staff shortage in food production.”

Withers said it was frustrating that there had been a lack of action on the issue “until even more gaps appeared on supermarket shelves and cars started queuing for fuel,” despite months of pleading for help.

“At this stage, my instinct is that this is too little, too late to make a real difference to the Christmas trade,” he warned.

However, the Food and Drink Federation’s chief executive, Ian Wright CBE, welcomed the move and said it would “alleviate some of the pressure” on the supply chain.

“This is a start but we need the government to continue to collaborate with industry and seek additional long term solutions,” he added.

The government said on Saturday that it would train up to 4,000 people as new HGV drivers over the next 12 weeks.

Other measures include writing to almost 1m drivers who currently hold a HGV driving licence, to urge them back into the sector.

Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesperson Alistair Carmichael said the changes would “barely scratch the surface of the desperate labour shortages facing our economy.”

Matthew Fell, chief policy director for the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), said the “limited scope” of the announcement came as a shock.

Fell added: “Businesses are playing their part. Many are stepping up investment in training, widening talent pools and doubling down on investment in digital and automation.

“Yet the scale of the challenges facing businesses on multiple fronts underlines the need for a COBRA-like Cabinet committee for recovery, enabling much faster action to alleviate short-term pressures.”