Labour Shortages in the Food Chains: COVID, Brexit or both?


By Prof. Michael Winter 

In recent weeks, the press has been full of stories about labour shortages in many parts of the food system. In another recent post on this site CRPR colleague Caroline Nye examines the farm labour situation. Here I will take a look at another part of the food system, transport and distribution. Although there has been much coverage of the labour shortages in the hospitality sector, the problems of the distribution sector are more potent in terms of an actual threat to getting products onto the shelves of retailers.

Logistics UK, the business association representing nearly half the UK lorry fleet (as well as members from rail, sea and air transporters and freight services such as retailers and manufacturers), highlights in its Logistics Report 2021 based on an industry survey, the current labour challenges in the sector. Take HGV drivers for instance. In order to drive an HGV, drivers must both pass a vocational driving test and then maintain a Driver Certificate of Professional Competence (CPC) based on 35 hours of periodic training every 5 years. In the previous four years there was an annual average of nearly 43,000 HGV driving test passes in the UK (57.7% pass rate). The pandemic led to a suspension of tests between April and July 2020.  Consequently there were only 24,626 test passes in 2020 (63.7% pass rate). A further suspension occurred during the 2021 lockdown. There remains a significant backlog of drivers seeking tests, which is a contributory factor to the current shortage of drivers.  Logistics UK estimate 45,000 HGV driver tests were delayed due to Covid, and a further 79,000 European logistics workers returned to their home countries as a result of Brexit.  Moreover, the labour challenges facing the transport sector are not confined to finding drivers.  The report highlights an increased demand for fitter, mechanic and technician roles, and that these were the hardest posts to fill in 2020, presumably also partly Brexit-related.  Nearly a half of respondents to the Logistics UK Industry Survey 2020/21 indicated they had increased staff gross pay, which will clearly be an inflationary pressure in the food sector.

Logistics UK propose the following reforms to help address the labour issue in transport:

  • Reform of the National Skills Fund to include priority Level 2 courses such as HGV driver: Currently only Level 3 courses are funded.
  • Apprenticeship Levy should become more flexible to suit logistics needs. Rigid rules on duration, training hours and work placements make the Levy hard to use.
  • Provision of access to qualified non-UK logistics workers through amended Skilled Worker Visa and T5 Visa arrangements.
  • Continued development of suitable Apprenticeship standards, T-Levels, and vocational courses in partnership with the education sector.

Speciality Food, have highlighted the wider ripple effects in the food sector including for firms with a short supply chain that did well during the early stages of the pandemic. They quote the operations manager of the fine food distributor, The Cress Company:

‘Although Cress are not a direct user of HGV drivers, the shortage of drivers with this type of license has also had a knock-on effect on the availability of good quality 3.5t van drivers. Drivers who have been successful at interviews are receiving counter offers as their current employers panic, potentially putting inflationary pressure on wages.’ 1

On the 28th June, Defra held emergency talks with industry leaders and according to The Grocer ‘a string of supermarket executives told Defra officials they were facing shortages. One retailer claimed this was the most pressure on the supply chain he had seen in 40 years.’2  This followed reports earlier in the week that food wholesaler Brakes had been forced to end its supply of goods to a range of its customers.

As The Grocer points out, the problem is not entirely new but has been severely exacerbated by COVID and Brexit. The sector has an image problem with an average age of 55 years and only 2% of HGC drivers being under the age of 25:

‘The answer is more apprenticeships; company sponsorship of licence attainment; and evolving vehicles, technology and working practices that will support and attract the next generation of drivers. In the near term it’s identifying those ex-drivers who have left the industry to persuade some to come back; and encouraging those approaching retirement to hold back. […]

There is no simple, quick-win solution here, as demand is set to outstrip driver capacity for many months to come. It is therefore important that we collaborate across the supply chain. Industry must work hand-in-hand with government, but to achieve this we must first make clear the serious consequences of a gummed-up and supply-restricted industry going into a summer period of significant staycation-based consumer demand. The industry community and government figured out how to keep the trucks and supplies rolling through the pandemic – we believe urgent collaboration is needed once again to keep the nation fully fed.’ ³

So the answer to my opening question is ‘both’. As we are increasingly finding in this project the COVID and Brexit effects are intertwined. Does it matter if we can’t easily tease out the relative significance of each factor?  Not really, as long as we recognize the complexities and the inter-relationships.


1.  Warning of food shortages “as bad as the first lockdown” | News | Speciality Food Magazine

2. HGV driver shortage: industry and government hold ‘constructive’ talks | The Grocer

3. The government must accelerate driver support to prevent food shortages | The Grocer

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