In a dramatic escalation of government acceptance of the scale of the crisis facing retail, the prime minister admitted that the problems are “acute” and affect businesses across the UK.
Former Tesco CEO Sir David Lewis has been appointed in an temporary capacity as supply chain tsar to try to ease blockages in the period up to the end of the year, in a reflection of official concern that Christmas could be spoilt by disruption to the availability of food items and gifts.
Deliveries of large numbers of products have been disrupted over recent months by a shortage of HGV drivers estimated by the Road Haulage Association to stand at around 100,000 – of whom about 30,000 are EU nationals who stopped working in the UK because of Brexit.
The UK’s withdrawal from the EU, which took effect on 1 January this year, has also meant expensive and time-consuming new red tape at borders, as well as sharp hikes in charges for sending parcels to and from the continent.
Sectors which were reliant on migrant labour from the EU, often travelling to the UK for seasonal work over a few months a year, have in many cases found themselves unable to recruit homegrown replacements. Farms have reported being forced to leave fruit unharvested for want of pickers, while a cull of an estimated 120,000 pigs is under way because of reduced capacity at meat-processing plants.
And supply chain issues have been massively exacerbated by the Covid pandemic, which has interrupted the steady flow of imports and exports around the world.
The cost of shipping containers from China to Europe surged over the course of 2021 from around 2,000 US dollars to $14,000 or more per 40-foot container, though recent weeks have shown signs of price pressures easing.
The truck driver shortage has led to snarl-ups at commercial ports, with Felixstowe last month informing customers that it was restricting the return of empty containers because its storage yards were overfull.
Downing Street said Sir David will “assess and resolve acute supply issues facing businesses across the UK”.
This will include advising Mr Johnson and Cabinet Office minister Stephen Barclay on long-term changes to UK supply chains for goods, as well as working with government officials on action swiftly to resolve short-term blockages.
He will co-chair the new Supply Chain Advisory Group of external experts as well as the new Industry Taskforce, to listen to concerns of professionals on the ground.
Mr Johnson said: “I’m pleased that Sir David Lewis is joining the team who have been working on future-proofing our supply chains across the United Kingdom as we recover from the pandemic.
“There are currently global supply issues which we are working with industry to mitigate and Dave brings a wealth of experience which will help us continue to protect our businesses and supply chains.”