Christmas would be endangered by the supply chain crisis if the government does not quickly add truck drivers to its skilled workers list, warned the managing director of the Icelandic supermarket chain this morning.
Keep talking Radio 4’s Today program, Richard Walker states that the UK is facing a “major shortage” of truck drivers (heavy goods vehicles) of around 100,000 drivers. Iceland itself lacks around 100 drivers. And he blames the government’s handling of Brexit for the problems.
The driver shortage is affecting the food supply chain on a daily basis, creating bottlenecks on shelves, confirms Walker.
We canceled deliveries for the first time since the pandemic began, around 30 to 40 deliveries a day.
Fast-moving goods like bread are canceled in around 100 stores a day, which means that Iceland is running out of bread in some stores and struggling to replenish its stocks quickly, while soft drink quantities have decreased by 50%.
Walker explains that the holiday season is now in jeopardy as it takes retailers months to properly prepare:
Of course, Christmas is just around the corner, and in retail we really start building up stocks for the hugely important time of the year from September onwards.
We have a lot of goods to ship until Christmas and a strong supply chain is vital for everyone.
The reason to sound the alarm now is that we canceled a Christmas party at the last minute. I would also hate it if this problem was problematic.
The simple solution, Walker explains, is to add truck drivers to the UK’s most important and skilled workforce performto recruit drivers from abroad.
These men and women, these truck drivers, kept the show on the streets for 18 months during the pandemic and it’s criminal that we don’t consider them skilled workers.
Q: So is Brexit and the departure of many drivers responsible for the supply chain problems?
Yes, Walker replies, but it’s more of a “self-inflicted wound” than an inevitable consequence of Brexit, caused (he says) by the government’s failure to recognize the importance of truckers.
Even if drivers were immediately put on the skilled labor list, it would take them four to six weeks to get them on the road (they have to be recruited, pass the work permit test, take a PCR test, and find accommodation), warns Walker.
It’s not a light switch that will happen overnight.
In the longer term, we need to replace workers from the UK, adds Walker [this is also what the UK government is pushing for].
It is undoubtedly a tough job and a skilled job, says Walker. Iceland is increasing its wage rates in its depots, but hiring British workers into the industry will take time – and won’t help this Christmas.
I think the market will correct itself. But the problem with hiring UK workers is that it will take six months.
We have to find these people, train them, they have to Class 1 licenses. Until then we have to settle for Christmas.
Other possible solutions, such as drafting the army, longer working hours, larger trucks, are just “sticky plasters”, concludes Walker.
The average age of a truck driver is 56 years. We have to hire more domestically, but that will take time. In the meantime, let’s put them on the skilled workers list so we can get more drivers and get our supply chains going.