“Gaps on supermarket shelves. Fast food outlets pulling milkshakes and bottled drinks from their menus. Restaurants running out of chicken and closing.” These are only the most visible signs of “Britain’s deepening supply chain crisis”, said Tom Wall and Phillip Inman in The Observer.
Stocks in shops and warehouses have slumped to their lowest levels since 1983. Some 70,000 pigs are stranded on farms because there isn’t the capacity to transport and process them. The primary reason for all this is an estimated 100,000 shortfall in the number of UK lorry drivers needed to get goods and materials moving. That’s partly because 14,000 EU drivers have left the country since Brexit, and only 600 have returned.
Meanwhile, the pandemic has prevented new drivers from filling the vacancies: around 40,000 HGV tests were cancelled last year. Union officials, however, describe these issues as just the final straw: for decades, they say, lorry drivers have been undervalued, underpaid and treated with disdain.
It’s time that attitude changed, said Dominic Lawson in the Daily Mail. You might not need a degree for lorry driving, but the hours are punishing, and it demands “enormous levels of sustained concentration”. After all, “the slightest lapse could be fatal”.
Thankfully, the national shortage of qualified drivers has finally brought some respect for this “vital role”. Waitrose is now offering up to £53,780 a year to Large Goods Vehicle drivers, more than its parent company John Lewis is offering for some white-collar jobs such as pensions specialists or finance analysts.
But the supply chain problem goes well beyond lorry drivers, said the FT: there are labour shortages throughout food production, distribution, hospitality and construction. Across the EU and the US, companies are finding that the speed of reopening, rehiring and restocking after long lockdowns has also created similar “worker shortages”.
Yes, the UK’s situation has been exacerbated by the flight of EU workers after Brexit, but filling those vacancies long-term will depend on better training, pay and conditions for UK workers – or “levelling up”, as the Government might say.
“We’re not used to modern capitalism being a mess,” said Torsten Bell in The Observer. And fixing it is going to be a “bumpy” process. We’ll have to talk openly about how we want our economy to work. Some sectors have got used to low-paid migrant labour: almost half of those in food manufacturing are foreign-born. We’ll have to pay more to fill those jobs – meaning higher prices – or we’ll have to accept “lower levels of output”, and import more food.
Either way, this is dangerous territory for the Government, said Chris Stevenson in The Independent. Voters react most strongly to crises that hit them in their homes, and shortages in the run-up to Christmas would be a political nightmare. Answers will be expected: “Johnson & Co. will have to provide them pretty swiftly.”