The food supply crisis which has seen Nando’s outlets across Britain closed up could see more restaurants shut in the weeks ahead, industry bosses have warned.
Sector chiefs told The Independent Brexit was to blame for the nation’s supply chain woes – as the industry struggles to cope with production workers returning home to the EU and a drastic lack of lorry drivers able to come to the UK.
Nick Allen, chief executive at the British Meat Processors Association, said the sector was struggling to get many product lines out to supermarkets and restaurants – with the UK’s meat production workforce down by up to 20 per cent.
“The supply problems are coming from the underlying labour problems happening since Brexit … It’s certainly Brexit-related, but it’s also the immigration decisions our politicians are making since Brexit,” Mr Allen told The Independent.
He added: “Nando’s is the tip of the iceberg. I think we’re going to see more and more [closures]. Some people are still trying to open up their restaurants – but they’re struggling to get staff and struggling for deliveries.”
Richard Griffiths, chief executive of the British Poultry Council, blamed Brexit for worker shortages in poultry production and the knock-on impact on supply. “The labour crisis is a Brexit issue,” Mr Griffiths said on Thursday.
The British Poultry Council and British Meat Processors Association have called for their production workers to be allowed onto the government’s shortage occupation list so more workers can come from overseas.
Mr Allen urged ministers to consider a temporary visa for food industry workers from overseas for the year ahead. “As an emergency measure, we’d like to see some sort of low-skilled visa put in place temporarily, because we just can’t get enough staff now,” said the meat industry boss.
He added: “The whole food industry is struggling for staff – fundamentally it would be great if the government talked to us about solutions.”
UK Hospitality’s chief executive Kate Nicholls said the nation’s restaurants were facing “enormous challenges to their supply chains” at the moment as they struggle to get going again after Covid lockdowns.
She told The Independent: “Around two-thirds of hospitality businesses are saying some goods simply don’t arrive. This has the knock-on impact of reducing the menu they can offer customers and hitting sales.”
Nic Wood, owner of Signature Group of restaurants, which operates 21 venues in Edinburgh and Glasgow, said his firm “can’t get enough staff to open up our venues to their full capacity or hours”.
The restauranteur said “lack of staff and supply chain complications” were jeopardising the push to get back to pre-Covid levels of trade. “We need a visa scheme to plug the employment void that has appeared since Brexit.”
One of Britain’s largest poultry producers dismissed claims the supply crisis was down to the recent Covid “pingdemic” which forced some staff into self-isolation. An Avara Foods spokesperson said: “Our concern is recruitment and filling vacancies when the UK workforce has been severely depleted as a result of Brexit.”
Professor Tim Lang from the Centre for Food Policy at City University of London, also pointed to the ongoing consequences of Brexit. “We’re now seeing Brexit beginning to work,” he told BBC Radio 4’s World at One.
“We’re seeing here the realities of people voting to leave the EU on which we depended for all sorts of migrant labour in the food sector,” he said. “Whether it’s sandwiches, chicken, retail or the hospitality sector – we’re seeing stresses and strains everywhere.”
One of the country’s largest vegetable producers – which supplies to leading supermarket chains – told The Independent it was having to throw some food away due to the lack of hauliers.
Jack Pearce, development manager at Alfred G Pearce in Norfolk, said: “There’s such a shortage that we’re dealing with delays of several days, which mean fresh food goes out of date and comes back to us to be dumped.”
The family firm – which grows and processes vegetables – is struggling with its own labour shortages, having seen its workforce reduced 20 per cent to 30 per cent down since Brexit after many EU staff returned home.
“There’s a certain arrogance from government about recruiting British workers – but they just aren’t there right now,” said Mr Pearce. “We need some short-term realism to open up visas to the EU again.”
It emerged earlier this month that the British army has been put on standby to help deliver supplies to supermarkets to help the nation cope with a shortage of around 100,000 truck drivers.
The Road Haulage Association (RHA) has blamed Brexit and all the driving tests cancelled during the pandemic for the crisis. Around 15,000 drivers from the EU returned home following Brexit, according to the RHA.
The group has called for the government to put HGV drivers on the shortage occupation list – which makes it possible to obtain a work visa. “We need to be on that list, but we’re not on it,” said a spokesperson for the RHA.
As shoppers continue to see many supermarket shelves left empty, Britain’s pubs have also been hit by beer shortages in recent days. The Rising Sun in Rochester, Kent, is one of several to have warned customers about shortages on certain beers because of delivery woes.
A spokesman for the Greene King pub chain said it was “having an impact on the whole industry”. Emma McClarkin, chief executive of the British Beer and Pub Association, said: “The HGV driver shortage is being felt by our sector like so many others.”
She called on the government to address the issue “as a matter of urgency to address the driver shortage in the immediate term – adding HGV drivers to the shortage occupation list would do much to help stabilise the current situation”.
The Food and Drink Federation (FDA) warned that Brexit could cause more supply problems in October when new border controls will be introduced for Great Britain that will apply to imports from the EU.
“The government will need to provide further clarity on a number of areas before then in order to ensure EU suppliers and GB importers have the best chance of being ready to meet the new requirements,” said a FDA spokesman.
A government spokesperson said it was working closely with the food sector “to ensure businesses have the labour they need,” adding: “We are looking at ways to help the sector recruit more domestic labour and invest in automation in order to reduce the reliance on migrant workers.”