Store owners get behind the wheel after UK driver shortage hits supplies


Paul Cheema has just set up another 12 hour shift for his convenience store in Coventry in the English Midlands. Not behind the counter, but behind the wheel: driving his van to and from a wholesaler in Birmingham to buy stock that his suppliers did not deliver.

Its supply crisis was caused by a shortage of truck drivers. Driven in large part by Brexit, the problem was exacerbated by high rates of coronavirus, which forced many still working truckers to self-isolate after being exposed to a possible positive case.

“On the weekends we ran out of bread and milk,” Cheema told the Financial Times. “So I got in the van. It is painful, but we are here to serve our community and we need full shelves.

Missing staples have become one of the most popular topics on C-Talk, a national Cheema forum set up for small store owners. “People are at breaking point,” he said.

the Convenience Stores Association (ACS), an industry lobby group, called Britain’s departure from the EU followed by the “pingdemia” a “perfect storm”.

The ACS and some UK employers are urging the government to exempt drivers and staff in fully vaccinated shops from self-isolation if they are exposed to Covid-19 but test negative. This change is not expected until August 16.

Paul Cheema outside his Nisa store in Coventry © Andrew Fox / FT

Cheema is a member of Nisa, a cooperative of 4,000 stores that was forced to cancel numerous deliveries last weekend due to a shortage of drivers.

Adrian Costain, who owns the Nisa stores in Merseyside, also resorted to a cash and carry store after Warburtons, the baker, halted deliveries this week. “We get much better service from our smaller suppliers,” he said.

Warburtons did not respond to a request for comment.

Nisa said: “Across the UK, driver shortages and the need to isolate are impacting supply chains and the delivery of goods. We are in regular communication with our partners to keep them informed of any change in delivery. ”

Spar stores are also suffering. Wholesaler AF Blakemore, which supplies more than 900 Spar stores, canceled nearly 10% of its refrigerated orders this week in an attempt to reset its network. It also overturned a decision to close a warehouse in Hastings and improved conditions for drivers, according to a note viewed by the FT.

Sarah Ellis, AF Blakemore group’s marketing director, told the FT that the number of Britons vacationing at home has increased demand at its busiest time of year.

She said the disruption would be “short-term” but called on the government to help. “While the establishment of Covid-19 test centers within distribution centers will benefit the availability of colleagues, additional measures are needed to help alleviate driver shortages. “

A delivery truck outside a Tesco Express store in central London

Asda and Tesco pay £ 1,000 sign-up bonus to new drivers until the end of September to help recruiting © Yui Mok / PA

The Road Haulage Association said the UK was less than 100,000 drivers, in an industry that typically employs around 600,000 people.

Another issue is that fewer drivers are qualifying because testing was canceled during the pandemic. Others left the industry after the government changed IR35 rules to treat them as employees rather than self-employed, which added to their tax bill.

The government has rejected calls by trade bodies for the temporary readmission of EU-based drivers until more UK drivers can be recruited or trained.

But a driver, who declined to be named, said the shortages were the culmination of years of declining wages and working conditions.

“Salaries have stagnated for 20 years. In fact, in many cases they have declined, especially since the influx of labor from Eastern Europe, ”he said. “We are treated like workers.

Even large supermarkets have reported sporadic shortages, with bulky but cheap items such as mineral water being a particular problem. Some have had to offer incentives to help recruiting – Asda and Tesco are paying a £ 1,000 enrollment bonus to new drivers until the end of September.

A female member of staff tidies empty shelves in a Nisa store

Nisa, which has 4,000 stores, was forced to cancel numerous deliveries last weekend due to a shortage of drivers © Andrew Fox / FT

Meanwhile, food is scarce. Farmers and meat processors were missing 16.5% of their normal workforce due to Covid-19 and Brexit, the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) said.

As a result, the British Poultry Council said its members had made unprecedented production cuts. Most produce 5 to 10 percent less chicken than usual and 10 percent less turkey, while Christmas turkey production is expected to decline by a fifth.

“UK food security will be hit by a double whammy of food inflation and will be forced to rely more on imported food,” said Richard Griffiths, managing director of the poultry trade group.

Tom Bradshaw, vice president of the NFU, said fruit and vegetable growers were also suffering from labor shortages. Many temporary agricultural workers in the EU have chosen not to work on UK farms, despite a pilot visa program for seasonal work.

About 65 percent of those workers were normally returnees from previous years, but this year only 35 percent were returnees, he said.

“There is enormous inflationary pressure, with wages being a key factor. Trying to pass [added costs] the supply chain is proving really difficult. There is real pressure at the farm level – the margins are eroding and disappearing very quickly, ”Bradshaw said.

A lack of transport forced a producer to send nearly £ 500,000 of fruit to landfill in June, he added.

The UK government said: “We recently announced a package of measures to help tackle the shortage of heavy truck drivers, including plans to streamline the process for new drivers to obtain their HGV licenses and drive them. ‘increase the number of tests that can be performed. “

“We have also temporarily relaxed the rules on driver schedules to allow truck drivers to make slightly longer journeys. “


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