Across Britain, a slow-burning problem has ignited into a supply chain crisis in recent weeks as restaurants, supermarkets and food manufacturers warned customers that some popular products may be temporarily unavailable because of a shortage of truck drivers.
McDonald’s milkshakes, Nando’s chicken, Haribo sweets and supermarket milk are among the items that have become scarce in Britain over the summer. But it goes far beyond food: Nearly every industry is complaining about delivery problems. And already organizations are warning that logistics issues could upend the arrival of Christmas toys and the trimmings crucial to family holiday meals.
A long-running shortage of truck drivers has been exacerbated by a post-Brexit exodus of European Union workers. Adding to the problem are disruptions to training for new drivers because of the pandemic. And for years, the trucking industry has struggled to attract new workers to a job that has traditionally been low paid and required long, grueling hours.
“Ninety-five percent of everything we get in Britain comes on the back of a truck,” said Rod McKenzie, the director of policy at Road Haulage Association, which represents the British road transport industry, and estimates that there is a shortfall of 100,000 drivers. “So if there are not enough trucks to go around — and we’ve got reports of big companies with a hundred trucks parked up at any one time — there simply is less stuff being delivered.”
Earlier in the summer, the German candy company Haribo said it was struggling to get its sweets into British shops. Arla, a large dairy producer, said it was having to skip up to a quarter of its deliveries. Last week, Nando’s, the popular restaurant chain, had to close about 50 of its restaurants because of a shortage of its famed peri-peri chicken. This week, Greggs, a grab-and-go coffee and lunch cafe, and Costa, a coffee chain, were the latest to suffer product shortages because of supply chain disruptions.
The delivery problems are forcing other companies to triage what they sell. McDonald’s took milkshakes and bottled drinks off the menu this week, allowing it to focus on serving burgers and fries.
British shoppers should expect to see even more companies reduce their product options and prioritize their best-selling items, Mr. McKenzie said.
In some cases, the disruption has been worsened by staff shortages. A major British poultry producer, 2 Sisters Food Group, said Brexit had contributed to a 15 percent reduction in its work force this year. The British Meat Processors Association recently warned that companies were six weeks behind their Christmas production schedules, almost guaranteeing shortages of popular items over the holidays.
The group also said its problems had been made more severe by retailers poaching their truck drivers with pay bonuses.
Iceland, a large supermarket chain, is raising the alarm about Christmas. It said retailers should be building up their inventory beginning in September, but instead, shelves are now emptying out. Richard Walker, the managing director, said the company was missing 100 full-time drivers.
“That is impacting the food supply chain on a daily basis,” Mr. Walker told the BBC. “We’ve had deliveries canceled for the first time since the pandemic began — about 30 to 40 deliveries a day.”
The United States also faces a shortage of truck drivers; the crisis is similar in that it’s been years in the making, as trucking companies have failed to attract younger workers. In Britain, the average age of a truck driver is nearly 50. Six years ago, the Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport said that just 2 percent of drivers were under the age of 25 and that by 2022, the industry would need 1.2 million more workers.
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Then, after the 2016 Brexit referendum, the value of the British pound plummeted, making it less lucrative for continental Europeans — truck drivers included — to work in Britain, prompting some to return to their home countries. That trend was exacerbated by the pandemic, when many wanted to be closer to their families.
When Britain took the final step of leaving the European Union at the end of last year, it meant drivers from continental Europe could no longer be employed at short notice and with ease in Britain.
“Until December, there was never going to be a labor shortage because, as soon as there was a sign of one, a company could talk to their agency in Poland or elsewhere and get them to send some people over,” said David Henig, a trade expert at the European Center for International Political Economy, a research institute.
Similarly, Brexit has complicated the job for British drivers who make international journeys because of the new paperwork needed to take loads to countries including France, the Netherlands and Ireland.
And more roadblocks are coming when Britain phases in the introduction of checks on foods and other goods coming into the country from continental Europe later in the year (so far, these checks have been performed only on items exported to the European Union).
The haulage and logistics industries in Britain have pleaded with the government to ease restrictions on visas for E.U. drivers. Logistics U.K., a trade group, is asking the government to create 10,000 seasonal visas (similar to a program for farm workers) for drivers.
To ease the shortage, the government has increased the number of hours drivers can work each day, and it has proposed initiatives to recruit new drivers, but it has resisted pressure to ease visa rules for European truck drivers.
“I don’t think the government wants to go there: if they give concessions on lorry drivers, there are other requests that will follow,” Mr. Henig said. Nor is there significant political pressure to concede because the opposition Labour Party, which is trying to woo back pro-Brexit voters, is cautious of criticizing Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union.
Efforts to fill those jobs with new British drivers have been stymied because over much of the last year, pandemic lockdowns prevented driving exams from taking place. The Road Haulage Association estimates that as many as 40,000 tests were not conducted. Training a new driver takes up to six months.
Employers have responded by raising pay and offering signing bonuses. Tesco, Britain’s largest supermarket chain, is offering £1,000 bonuses to drivers who join before the end of September and further pay increases for six more months.
“It’s definitely an undervalued profession,” said Alex Veitch, the general manager of public policy at Logistics U.K., in both pay and the appreciation for its crucial role in supplying necessities and the pressure of performing the job safely. “That’s bound to change.”
Working conditions, too, have been the focus of complaints among drivers. The job involves long, sometimes lonely hours, andsafe parking spaces and rest stops for truckers can be hard to find. The challenges of truckers was stark last year when thousands of drivers in southern England spent Christmas camping in the front of their trucks after the French government closed the border in a vain attempt to stop the further spread of the coronavirus. It then took days to clear the backlog.
Mr. McKenzie at the Road Haulage Association joined others in predicting the problems would still disrupting deliveries come Christmas. The problem isn’t showing signs of abating.
“It’s getting worse,” Mr. McKenzie said. “No doubt, no question. It’s getting worse week on week.”