The UK government must allow retailers to recruit HGV drivers from abroad to avoid a supply chain crisis that could ruin Christmas, a senior supermarket chain boss has warned.
Richard Walker, Iceland’s managing director, said the UK faced a shortage of 100,000 HGV drivers that was already causing 30-40 deliveries to its stores to be cancelled daily, and would upend plans to begin building Christmas stock from next month.
“We’ve got Christmas around the corner, and in retail we start to stock build really from September onwards, for what is a hugely important time of year,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
“We’ve got a lot of goods to transport between now and Christmas and a strong supply chain is vital for everyone. The reason for sounding the alarm now is that we’ve already had one Christmas cancelled at the last minute, and I’d hate this one to be problematic as well.”
The HGV driver shortage had caused cancelled orders for fast-moving food products such as bread at about 100 Iceland stores, and deliveries of soft drinks had fallen 50% by volume, he said.
It has also led to disruption across the UK’s fast food sector after milkshakes were cut from the menu at McDonald’s, and Nando’s was forced to close about 50 restaurants because of chicken shortages.
Walker said the shortfall in lorry drivers was not “an inevitable consequence” of post-Brexit EU immigration rules but a “self-inflicted wound” created by the “government’s failure to appreciate the importance of HGV drivers and the work they do for us”.
He said: “The simple solution is that HGV lorry drivers need to be added to the essential and skilled worker list, like other professions such as ballerinas. These HGV drivers have kept the show on the road for 18 months during the pandemic and it’s criminal that we’re not viewing them as skilled workers.”
It would take four to six weeks to recruit foreign drivers, Walker said, so even if the government immediately added them to the skilled workers list a solution to the UK’s supply chain crisis “would not happen overnight”.
The shortfall of lorry drivers has been caused by a combination of post-Brexit EU immigration rules, Covid-19 restrictions and self-isolation guidance.
However, critics of the UK’s biggest food retailers have also called for better pay and working conditions to help attract local workers.
Walker said: “We are increasing our pay rates across our depots, and I think the market will correct itself. The problem with bringing in UK workers is that will take six months. We have to find these people, train them up, they need to get class 1 licences.”
The Iceland boss also dismissed “sticking plaster” solutions including “bringing in the army, longer hours, bigger trucks”, which would fail to tackle the systemic problems facing the UK’s supply chains.
“We need to recruit more domestically but that will take time. In the meantime, let’s get [foreign drivers] on the skilled worker list so that we can bring in more drivers so we can get our supply chains running,” he said.