Alongside Coronavirus, another epidemic seems to have been afflicting the United Kingdom in the last months: food shortages. The country has recently experienced unprecedented levels of out of stock groceries, with a record-high 7.8% of lack of products in supermarkets in mid-July 2021. However, the news that has shocked the nation has been the announcement of the closure of dozens of restaurants of the food chain Nando’s throughout England, Scotland, and Wales. The brand famous for its peri-peri chicken signature dishes has been forced to shut several of its shops because of a shortage in its raw material: chicken. Nonetheless, the issue is not chicken per se. Instead, the problem can be traced back to the supply chain system throughout the United Kingdom, whose negative repercussions have impacted both supermarkets and restaurants alike. When questioned about the shops' temporary closure, Nando’s spokesperson commented that “the UK food industry has been experiencing disruption across the supply chain and a number of our restaurants across England, Scotland and Wales have been impacted”. A domino effect involving Brexit, lack of HGV drivers, and the “pingdemic” has seemed to have given the final blow to the British supply chain structure and brought forth a nationwide out of stock pandemic.
Nowadays, the news on the low amount of chicken available in the United Kingdom is at the centre of attention, with experts warning of the consequences it could have on Christmas festivities. The fault of the nation’s distress has been partly attributed to the “pingdemic”. This situation has been created by fact that the NHS app has forced many Britons to isolate themselves after being “pinged” because they got in contact with someone that tested positive for Coronavirus. With the increase in Coronavirus cases in England during the summer, the app has reported a record-high of 618.903 people “pinged”, requiring employees in essential industries to stay at home. After noticing the repercussions this device had to major retailers and diners, the government has been forced to act and has exempted doubled-vaccinated workers from quarantine.
Moreover, while KFC, another food chain colossus, has been forced to limit its menu, the British Poultry Council (BPC) has warned the country is confronted with a “massive problem” that involves the whole supply chain process furnishing the industries. The BPC’s chief executive, Richard Griffiths, has asserted that the problem of the shortage lies behind a lack of labour and an absence of lorry drivers. Moreover, he also asserted that these difficulties were directly correlated with Brexit by saying that “(W)hen you don’t have people, you have a problem – and this is something we are seeing across the whole supply chain. The labour crisis is a Brexit issue”. Similarly, Labour County Councillor Alexandra Bulat has also pointed out the repercussion of the United Kingdom divorce from the European Union and asserted that “(M)any EU migrant drivers left the UK during the pandemic and the new immigration system will make it difficult to recruit migrant drivers who have been key to this part of the economy”. The labour restrictions imposed by Brexit have established strict criteria on immigration, directly impacting employment through Britain. Indeed, the BPC chief executive alerted that the poultry companies members of the BPC “are reporting up to 16% vacancies at the moment and this is a direct result of the limiting of immigration policies”. Similarly, Avaro Foods, one of the main suppliers of poultry in Britain, has declared that “(O)ur concern is recruitment and filling vacancies when the UK workforce has been severely depleted as a result of Brexit”.
The effects of Brexit are particularly felt in the distribution phase of the supply chain, which is experiencing a lack of drivers. The sector, short of around 60.000 to 100.000 operators, is one of the key components of the complex machine that ensures the supply of products to supermarkets and restaurants. Commenting on this issue, Ranjit Singh Boparan, a poultry sector tycoon, has underlined how this difficulty has been amplified by the scale of the problem. He explained that a “shortage of drivers is just one element of the supply chain, a very important element which is being made very public, but if you just times up by 100, that's the labour shortage that we're facing in the food industry, not just the poultry industry - the food industry today - and is something that we need to address”.
Finally, another element that has struck a final blow to the British supply chain has been the drastic increase in demand generated by the end of the lockdown and the gradual reopening of pubs, bars, and dining rooms. The triple effects – the “pingdemic”, Brexit, and going back to life as usual – put an additional strain on the already fragile system. As summarised by David Visick, director of communications at the Federation of Wholesale Distributors, “you have three things that suddenly hit – fewer people working in those low-paid jobs [as drivers], the need to isolate, and every single pub and restaurant being open again and in need of distribution. That’s why you’ve seen shortages and missing stock”.
The fate of the British food supply chain seems grim. The reopening of schools in a couple of weeks and the Britons turning the page on the pandemic and enjoying their newfound freedom might further contribute to putting additional strain on the distribution mechanism. Unless the political leadership takes into consideration the pleas from the sector’s experts and relaxes some of the restrictions, the country risks facing additional products shortages.
Written by Cinzia Saro
Cinzia Saro is a columnist at DecipherGrey.