The concerns were raised by a new food and drink supply chain task force brought in to deal with the labour crisis which has seen supermarkets desperately call for rules for workers from abroad to be relaxed
Britain’s largest supermarket has warned the government that the shortage of lorry drivers will lead to panic buying in the run-up to Christmas if urgent action is not taken.
Tesco bosses sounded the alarm over a shortfall of 800 lorry drivers in a meeting with ministers and called for relaxed rules for workers from abroad.
Gaps have been seen on shelves for months as a result of the delivery crisis, while big chains including McDonald’s and Wetherspoons have apologised to customers for shortages.
Poultry industry bosses have warned of a lack of fresh turkeys while retailer The Entertainer has expressed concerns with deliveries of toys and many other goods.
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The concerns were raised by a new food and drink supply chain task force brought in to deal with the labour crisis.
The retail giant told Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) officials that it was struggling to fill lorry driver vacancies despite increasing wages and added that its logistics partner Eddie Stobart was also operating with a similar shortfall of transport workers.
The Road Haulage Association and Logistics UK estimate there is a need for between 75,000 and 100,000 new recruits.
Logistics UK has asked the government to provide 10,000 temporary visas to plug the worker gap until more drivers can be trained in the UK. However, politicians are so far resisting calls for this short-term fix.
Boris Johnson, Home Secretary Priti Patel and Transport Secretary Grant Shapps insist that firms need to recruit more drivers and pay them better.
Tesco has been offering new driver recruits bonuses of £1,000 since July, while other supermarkets and businesses have taken similar action.
Andrew Woolfenden, the supermarket’s UK distribution and fulfilment director, said the labour shortages were industry-wide: “Our concern is that the pictures of empty shelves will get 10 times worse by Christmas and then we’ll get panic buying.”
Tesco’s intervention came as the president of the National Farmers’ Union, Minette Batters, said people will panic buy if they see empty shelves.
Ms Batters wrote a letter, signed by 12 food and drink trade bodies, to Boris Johnson, saying: “The entire UK food supply chain from farm supply to retail outlet are united in calling for an emergency ‘Covid recovery visa’ to open up new recruitment opportunities as a matter of urgency.
“Without it, more shelves will go empty and consumers will panic buy to try to get through the winter.
“The supply chain will be critically damaged beyond recovery if it cannot overcome the immediate crisis. We must have an urgent commitment from you to enable the industry to recruit from outside the UK over the next 12 months to get us through the winter and to help us save Christmas.”
A Tesco spokesperson said: “We have good availability, with deliveries arriving at our stores and distribution centres across the UK every day.
“While the industry-wide shortage of HGV drivers has led to some distribution challenges, we’re working hard to address these and to plan for the months ahead, so customers can get everything they need.”
Andrew Opie, of the British Retail Consortium, which speaks for all the large store chains, said: “Retailers are helping train tens of thousands of new British drivers but while this takes place it is vital that Government provides temporary work visas to allow drivers from abroad to fill the gap and keep our supply chains moving.”
Industry leaders say the driver shortage is a combined result of Covid-19 and Brexit.
The pandemic led to the cancellation of tens of thousands of driving tests for people who would have replaced older drivers leaving the industry.