No pasta? Again? The UK's food industry supply crisis

A deep dive into the UK’s fuel supply crisis and the link to the widening gaps on supermarket shelves across the country.

Jake Watson
12th October 2021
Toilet paper? Nil. Tinned tomatoes? Gone. The Christmas turkey? Nowhere to be seen. It’s not the first time we’ve seen our supermarket shelves looking a little sparser than we’d like in the past two years, but what are the real reasons behind the current shortages hitting the UK?

Well, there’s not just one reason. In fact, they’re four-fold: the gas crisis, genuine food shortages, a lack of access to fuel, and last but certainly not least, COVID-19. The start of the COVID-19 pandemic saw panic buying in the masses. The threat of an unknown virus wreaking havoc across the planet drove thousands to ensure they had everything they could possibly need for weeks to come. But this time, the supply challenges are coming from the other side, not the consumers, and government officials are warning of a second winter of discontentment on the horizon.

Over the last year, the UK’s gas prices have risen exponentially – quadrupled in fact – to reach record levels much higher than those of our neighbouring European nations, and there’s no let-up in sight. Yet with the rise of gas prices comes a rising cost of Carbon Dioxide, a fundamental ingredient in the process of food production. The gas is used to make dry ice to keep food fresh in transportation, to cool nuclear reactors, and to stun poultry before slaughter. Whilst a government bailout of a firm that stopped their CO2 production has lightened the pressure on the industry, there are still concerns within the supply chain.

Further lockdowns might induce a recurrence of national panic buying

The next problem to hit the supply chain is the deficit of heavy goods vehicle drivers in the UK. With many drivers headed back to the EU following the completion of Brexit at the beginning of the year, the UK’s already crippling driver shortfall has almost reached breaking point. According to the Road Haulage Association, the UK currently faces a deficit of around 90,000 essential lorry drivers. A Guardian report this year stated that ‘about 25,000 HGV drivers from the EU left during 2020 and did not return, while there is also a backlog of 40,000 people waiting to take their HGV tests’. Additionally, to these multitude challenges the supply chain is facing, the UK’s HGV workforce is ageing rapidly with the average driver aged 57, and hundreds retiring every year.

Resultantly, the lack of drivers had meant that suppliers hadn’t been able to get fuel to petrol stations quick enough, and with a flurry of cars heading to their local forecourts after a little bit of fearmongering from the national media, the UK then had a full-blown fuel supply crisis on its hands too.

And finally, the ceaseless restrictions and restraints of the COVID-19 pandemic – and the emerging threat of a new variant – means that vital workers at multiple points in the supply chain have been forced to isolate, creating a shortage in the workforce. Looking forward, although Boris Johnson is known to be strongly against another lockdown, he has not ruled out a return to some of the tougher restrictions seen last winter. While the vaccine has boosted hopes that measures such as social distancing and mask-wearing will not be needed again, they are being held in reserve in case the situation deteriorates. Further lockdowns might induce a recurrence of national panic buying, whilst large numbers of the workforce isolating would mean there won't be enough people to get the Christmas turkey to tables across the nation.

With a huge deficit of drivers, issues at the border following Brexit, and astronomical gas prices that aren't reducing anytime soon, it looks like our shelves will be looking bare for a little while longer.

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AUTHOR: Jake Watson
2nd year French and English Literature student at Newcastle University, with an interest in all things Arts, Culture & Food. Fran Leibowitz wannabe. @JMichaelWatson on Twitter.

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