James Bielby

HGV crisis: Government action “too little, too late” – Bielby

Government moves to attract more HGV drivers to the UK may be something, but as FWD’s Chief Executive points out, it doesn’t assuage wholesaler concerns about food distribution with Christmas on the horizon

Too little, too late. An extra 5,000 HGV drivers might just do enough to reduce the gaps on supermarket shelves, or keep the forecourts open, but it won’t do much to reassure hundreds of thousands of restaurants, pubs and shops who are wondering what kind of Christmas they are going to be able to offer their customers.

We have been pressing the government for months to introduce temporary visas to bring in skilled EU workers until the UK is able to recruit, train, test and properly reward a new generation of HGV drivers. Had they listened and acted earlier, they could have avoided the PR disaster of panic at the petrol pumps in every newspaper and TV channel.

An extra 10,000 Seasonal Visas for drivers and poultry workers won’t increase the flow of food and drink into FWD members’ distribution centres, or return order fulfilment to the levels customers expect. But the concession does demonstrate that the government is finally taking the issue seriously. Now the door is open to adding HGV drivers to the Shortage Occupation List – with vastly improved wages, the relative weakness of the Pound against the Euro, and the assurance of a more permanent stay than the three months offered by the new visa scheme, it is hoped that European drivers will fill UK vacancies, especially if they have existing ties here.

Talking to wholesalers over the summer we’ve heard one long sigh of relief, particularly from those in foodservice and the on-trade. While there is a long way to go to make up for the loses of 2020 and the early part of this year, the recovery is well under way, with some wholesalers reporting sales above the equivalent period in 2019. Considering the availability challenge they’ve faced, it’s been an incredible turnaround for a foodservice sector which was on its knees a few months ago.

Beneath the smiles however there’s a real concern that this period of relative prosperity is coming to an end as the full extent of the food distribution crisis reveals itself. With schools back and Christmas looming, short-staffed teams are already at full stretch keeping their customers stocked in the face of unreliable and incomplete deliveries from suppliers, while facing their own challenges finding and retaining drivers for their HGV vehicles.

Covid, Brexit, a long-term over-reliance on cheap migrant labour and climate emergency have all contributed to the perfect storm that’s lashing the UK now, with the forecast only expected to worsen this side of Christmas. From farms to restaurant kitchens, we have 500,000 vacancies in food supply, many of them for skilled positions such as meat processors. Despite their u-turn, the government would still like UK workers to fill those positions, which is an entirely admirable ambition, but its logic is flawed. Even unskilled vacancies won’t be taken up until their pay and conditions are attractive to domestic jobseekers.

Severe shortages in meat, wheat, all kinds of drinks and packaging all stem from a lack of available skills in manufacture, processing and distribution. Training and qualifications for skilled roles take time we don’t have.

The immediate outlook is for both food price inflation and reduced availability. For wholesalers, many of whom are still years away from recovering from their lockdown losses, the challenge is to find a way to trade profitably within these constantly shifting parameters.

At FWD, we’ll do our best to keep the heat on the government, not only to find short-term fixes like extending drivers’ hours up beyond Christmas, but also to invest in training, apprenticeships and qualifications, and in the case of haulage in particular, better facilities. We will also keep pushing for direct grants and business rates relief for wholesalers, some of whom haven’t received any meaningful financial aid.

Suppliers have a role here too. They are facing the same issues of availability and rising energy costs as wholesalers so the obvious solution is to face them together. It’s going to take some open and honest conversations about what can and can’t be delivered, which costs will have to be passed on, and what help and advice we can collectively offer to struggling customers. FWD members will be looking to suppliers to ensure that wholesalers and their vast, diverse and vital customer base are not at the back of the the queue for the stock and support they will so desperately need, and that margins reflect the new reality.

Those conversations will be taking place every day but in particular on October 14, when we bring the sector together for the first face-to-face FWD conference since 2019. We look forward to seeing many of you there.

distrubution food shortages FWD Government HGV drivers James Bielby Wholesalers