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Supermarket Food Shortages Will Be Permanent, An Industry Leader Has Warned

3 min read

The food shortages being reported by a growing number of household names are likely to last forever, a leading industry figure has said in a stark warning to the government.

Ian Wright, CEO of the Food & Drink Federation, said the system that for decades had meant British consumers could expect a full range of food or drink items in their supermarkets and restaurants was "over" and probably not coming back. 

A shortage of lorry drivers and workers elsewhere in supply chains, compounded by Brexit and the Covid pandemic, has triggered shortages of food and other items in recent weeks, with McDonald's, Greggs, the Co-op and many other big names reporting certain items running out.

Speaking to the Institute For Government think tank on Friday, Wright said the disruption "is going to get worse" and warned "it's not going to get better after getting worse any time soon". 

The UK food and drink industry is short of around half a million workers, he told the IfG, meaning it is about an eighth short of the total number of people it needs in its workforce.

He went onto warn that shortages appearing on supermarket shelves are going to last forever because there had been a fundamental change to how the UK's supply chains worked.

"The result of the labour shortages is the just-in-time system that has sustained supermarkets, stores, and restaurants so that food has arrived on shelves or in kitchens just when you need it, is no longer working, and I don't think it will work again," he said.

"We are now in for permanent shortages."

These shortages won't mean the country runs out of food, he said.

However, Wright added, it will result in situations like last week when "the whole of the east of England" went without supplies of bottled water because businesses were unable to deliver there.

"It's a first-world problem and nobody is going to be completely bereft if they can't get hold of bottled water," the industry boss said.

"But what's changing now is the fact that the UK shopper and consumer could have previously expected just about every product they want to be on the shelf or in the restaurant all the time.

"That's over, and I don't think it's coming back."

The government is under growing pressure to help relieve the pressure on supply chains in the short-term by making it easier for companies to hire lorry drivers and other workers from Europe.

The Confederation of British Industry, which is one of the many the trade bodies calling for revise to temporarily tweak the UK's post-Brexit immigration rules, warned earlier this week that labour shortages could last up to two years without urgent action from the government.

However, the government has so far rebuffed those calls and said it wants businesses to recruit more British workers, rather than rely on EU workers.

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