Many supermarkets in the UK have had to contend with empty shelves at various points, and while there may be no food shortage, Brexit and Covid-19 have affected the supply chain. (Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)

Even though Covid-19-related panic buying is now over, social media has been flooded in the past few weeks with pictures of UK supermarkets’ empty shelves, with consumers wondering whether Brexit is to blame, or the Covid-19 pandemic, or whether there is just an actual food shortage.

Unlike the infamous courgette crisis of 2017, when frost across Spanish fields ruined harvests, interrupting supply to countries such the UK and making it impossible for courgetti aficionados to get their hit, the problem this time does not seem to be a food shortage, but issues with distribution channels.

UK supermarkets have acknowledged that there is an issue with food supply chains. Speaking to Investment Monitor, a Co-op spokesperson said that the supermarket had “experienced some minor disruption to some supplies locally” but that they were working closely with their suppliers “to ensure that consumers still have access to the same great selection of goods”.

The problem seems to stem from a lack of heavy goods vehicle (HGV) drivers. Speaking about the problem, Andrew Opie, director of food and sustainability at the British Retail Consortium, told Investment Monitor: “The fall in HGV driver numbers has resulted in minor disruption to some retail supply chains, which the new extension to drivers’ hours should help to address. Retailers continue to work closely with their suppliers to ensure consumers still have access to a wider selection of goods; however, the government must act at pace to increase the number of HGV driving tests taking place as part of a longer-term solution.”

A skills shortage and a Brexit nightmare

While this problem – a shortage of lorry drivers – seems to be straightforward, the causes are many and complex, with some preceding the Covid-19 pandemic.

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In an open letter to UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the Road Haulage Association estimated the country's shortage of HGV drivers before the pandemic to be “in excess of 60,000”.

The government must act at pace to increase the number of HGV driving tests taking place as part of a longer-term solution. Andrew Opie, British Retail Consortium

The letter points at five main factors behind the shortage: the Covid-19 pandemic, Brexit, retiring drivers, a shortage in HGV driving tests and tax reforms.

Before the pandemic, about 600,000 HGV drivers were employed in the UK, with about 60,000 from EU member states. Many of these EU drivers returned to their countries of origin amid lockdown restrictions. According to the letter, the “vast majority have not yet returned”, with the uncertainty regarding Brexit and working rights for non-UK citizens widely considered to be a major contributory factor.

The Covid-19 pandemic also prevented driving tests from taking place in the UK for much of 2020, including HGV tests. This resulted in a 62.5% decrease in drivers that completed the training successfully, from 40,000 in 2019 to only 25,000 in 2020.

To further exacerbate the challenge facing the UK, the average age of an HGV driver is 55, and fewer than 1% are under the age of 25. The inactivity brought on by lockdowns in the UK “resulted in much of this ageing workforce retiring early or finding employment in other, less demanding, sectors”, the Road Haulage Association letter highlights.

Lastly, a reform of payroll taxation through the introduction of IR35 has made it more expensive for workers outside the UK – otherwise know as 'agency workers' – to work in the country. The open letter states that it “welcomes legislation that ensures fair and equal tax for all. However, government must now recognise the repercussions of this and the other issues mentioned and urgently intervene to help us to resolve the resulting crisis”.

Not a UK food shortage, just unreliable supply chains

Data on fruit and vegetable production in the UK for 2020 is due to be released, but in 2019, for example, home production contributed to a mere 16.4% of the total UK supply of fruit. This insufficient level of domestic production, along with complex supply chains, highlights the vulnerabilities of the UK’s fruit and vegetable supply.

An article in the science journal Nature points at the need to “reorientate the UK food system to grow more food sustainably in the UK” to prevent the issues with supply chains uncovered by the pandemic, as well as with labour shortages, the combination of which is leading to empty supermarket shelves.

All of these factors could also lead to further food price increases, which would affect the most vulnerable. It now lies in the hands of the government to assure all concerned that the UK can enjoy a sustainable supply of fresh food that doesn't infringe upon workers' rights.