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Store owners take the wheel after UK driver shortages hit supply

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Paul Cheema added a 12-hour shift to a convenience store in Coventry, central England. Behind the wheel, not behind the counter: You drive a van to and from a wholesaler in Birmingham to purchase inventory that a supplier failed to deliver.

His supply crisis was caused by a shortage of truck drivers. The problem, which Brexit has played a major role in, is exacerbated by high coronavirus rates, which have forced many truck drivers who were still working to self-isolate after exposure to possible positive cases.

“We ran out of bread and milk over the weekend,” Cheema told the Financial Times. “So I got into the van. It’s painful, but we’re here to serve the community and we need a whole shelf.”

Missing essentials has become one of the most popular topics on C-Talk, Cheema, a national forum set up for small store owners. “People are at the limit,” he said.

The sector’s lobbying group, the Association of Convenience Stores (ACS), described the “epidemic” as the “perfect storm” following Britain’s exit from the EU.

ACS and some UK employers are urging the government to exempt fully vaccinated drivers and store associates from self-quarantine if they have been exposed to Covid-19 but have tested negative. That change is not planned until August 16th.

Outside the Nisa store in Coventry by Paul Cheema | © Andrew Fox/FT

Cheema is a member of Nisa, a cooperative with 4,000 stores that had to cancel many deliveries last weekend due to a lack of drivers.

Adrian Costtain, who owns a Nisa store in Merseyside, has relied on her to buy cash and belongings after baker Warburtons stopped deliveries this week. “We’re getting a much better service from smaller suppliers,” he said.

Warburtons did not respond to requests for comment.

Nisa said: “Across the UK, driver shortages and the need for isolation are impacting our supply chain and delivery of goods. We communicate regularly with our partners to keep them informed of changes in delivery.”

Spa stores are also struggling. Wholesaler AF Blakemore, which supplies more than 900 Spar stores, canceled nearly 10% of refrigerated orders this week to reset its network. According to the memo the FT saw, it reversed the decision to close the warehouse in Hastings and improved the driver’s condition.

Sarah Ellis, Group Marketing Director at AF Blakemore, told FT that the number of Britons vacationing at home increased demand during the busiest time of the year.

She said the interruption would be “short-term,” but she turned to the government for help. “Creating a Covid-19 testing center within a distribution center will help peer availability, but more action is needed to help alleviate the driver shortage.”

Asda and Tesco are offering a £1,000 sign-on bonus to new drivers through the end of September to help recruiting. © Yui Mok/PA

The Road Haulage Association says the UK is short of 100,000 drivers in an industry that typically employs around 600,000 people.

Another problem is that there are fewer qualified drivers because tests have been canceled during the pandemic. Others left the industry after the government changed the IR35 rule, treating them as employees rather than self-employed and adding them to their tax bills.

The government has rejected the trade agency’s request for temporary re-entry of EU-based drivers until more UK drivers are recruited or trained.

But one driver, who did not want to be named, said the shortage was the culmination of years of declining wages and working conditions.

“Wages have been stagnant for 20 years. In fact, it has declined in many cases, especially after the influx of the Eastern European workforce,” he said. “We are treated like workers.”

Even in large supermarkets, sporadic shortages have been reported, with bulky but cheap products such as bottled water becoming a problem. Some had to offer incentives to help recruit them. Both Asda and Tesco are offering new drivers a sign-on bonus of £1,000 through the end of September.

Department store John Lewis announced Thursday that it would increase truck drivers’ salaries by up to £5,000 a year.

Nisa, which has 4,000 stores, had to cancel many shipments last weekend due to a shortage of drivers. © Andrew Fox/FT

On the other hand, food is scarce. The National Farmers’ Federation (NFU) said that farmers and meat processors have lost 16.5% of their regular workforce in the aftermath of COVID-19 and Brexit.

As a result, the British Poultry Council said its members had unprecedented production cuts. While most produce 5 to 10 percent less chicken and 10 percent less turkey than usual, Christmas turkey production will be cut by a fifth.

Richard Griffiths, chief executive of the Poultry Trading Group, said: “Food security in the UK will be hit double by food inflation and will be forced to depend on more imported food.”

NFU’s Vice President Tom Bradshaw said fruit and vegetable growers are also suffering from a labor shortage. Many temporary agricultural workers in the EU have decided not to work on UK farms despite a pilot visa scheme for seasonal work.

About 65 percent of these workers typically returned last year, but only 35 percent this year, he said.

“There is huge inflationary pressure where wages are the key driver. try to pass [added costs] Growing your supply chain is a real challenge. There is real pressure at the farm level. Margins are eroding and disappearing very quickly,” Bradshaw said.

Lack of transport forced one grower to send nearly £500,000 of fruit to landfill in June.

The UK government “recently announced a set of measures to help address the HGV driver shortage, including plans to streamline the process for new drivers to obtain HGV licenses and increase the number of tests they can perform,” the UK government said. said.

“We also temporarily relaxed the driver time rules to allow HGV drivers to make slightly longer trips.”

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