The government is under pressure to relax post-Brexit migration rules to unblock Britain’s worst supply-chain crisis since the 1970s, with business leaders warning that continued disruption could ruin Christmas.
Industry bosses said urgent changes to the visa system were required as retailers struggle to keep shelves stocked, and restaurants run out of food and drink in the meltdown triggered by Covid and Brexit.
Industry estimates put the shortage of workers needed to drive lorries, handle goods in warehouses and pick fruit and vegetables at hundreds of thousands. Company bosses and trade groups are now warning that if ministers refuse to allow more EU workers into the UK, they risk a deeper crisis this winter.
The chairman of Tesco, the UK’s largest supermarket group, called for more drivers to meet an estimated 100,000 shortfall. “I think there may be some shortages at Christmas,” he warned. “At the moment we’re running very hard just to keep on top of the existing demand and there isn’t the capacity to build stocks that we’d like to see.”
Richard Walker, Iceland’s managing director, said the UK faced a shortage of HGV drivers that was already causing 30-40 deliveries to its stores to be cancelled daily. Explicitly linking the issues to Brexit, he called the crisis a “self-inflicted wound” that was likely to get worse. “The simple solution is that HGV lorry drivers need to be added to the essential and skilled worker list” he said.
However, ministers appear unwilling to give way on visas. The government continued to insist on Wednesday that employers needed to do more to recruit and retain British workers. A Home Office spokesperson said: “The British people repeatedly voted to end free movement and take back control of our immigration system. Employers should invest in our domestic workforce instead of relying on labour from abroad.”
Guardian analysis of labour market figures from the Office for National Statistics confirms the extent of the fall in eastern Europeans in the UK workforce since the start of the pandemic, and after Britain left the EU earlier this year.
The number of Romanian and Bulgarian workers in the UK, who would typically fill lower-paid logistics and food production roles, has plunged by almost 90,000, or 24% since the end of 2019. Meanwhile employees from eight eastern European countries, including Poland and the Czech Republic, have fallen by more than 100,000, or 12%.
Meanwhile, industry sources said in addition to lorry driver shortages, there was a lack of tens of thousands of seasonal agricultural workers, and 14,000 needed in meat-processing plants.
Tony Danker, director-general of the CBI, said there was no doubt staff shortages were starting to drag back Britain’s economic recovery from the pandemic and that changes to migration rules could help firms with acute problems.
“The government needs to take a sector view of the challenges and identify solutions that can have an impact quickly. That could mean being agile in the way we use our immigration system to bring in fixed term visas for shortage occupations,” he said.
Rod McKenzie, of the Road Haulage Association, said ministers were attempting to wash their hands of the problem and lay it at the industry’s door to fix. “It’s frustrating that the government is so inactive on this issue,” he said.
Hauliers would respond by improving pay and conditions, offering bonuses to new starters and investing in staff training, he said, but short-term solutions are vital to prevent a winter meltdown.
“We need oven-ready lorry drivers right here right now. We think there should be short-term visas for Europeans or drivers from anywhere else to come in and help out for three to six months,” he said.
Earlier this month, manufacturing industry surveys showed Britain was suffering from the worst supply-chain disruption since at least 1977. Retailers also say their stock levels have plunged to the lowest since the early 1980s.
Labour warned that voters were losing patience with supply shortages and wanted action from the government to sort them out. Jenny Chapman, shadow minister for Brexit issues, said: “The last thing we need right now is more self-inflicted disruption to our supplies of food and drink.”
Businesses said the government needed to update its shortage occupation list to address skills gaps. Roles included on the list are awarded more points to make it easier to get a visa to work in the UK, although lorry drivers and several other roles where companies are warning of shortages are not currently included.
The Federation of Small Businesses said: “Skills gaps across the goods transportation, construction, care and leisure sectors in particular are now starting to weigh heavy on small firms up and down the country, and the government should stand ready to act.”