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Why are supermarket shelves empty? How Brexit and coronavirus have created perfect storm

Brexit: EU supermarket ‘overwhelmed’ with paperwork

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Empty supermarket shelves were seen at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic last year when Brits rushed to stores to stock up in the response to impending lockdown. Now, much of England is unlocked, some shoppers have noticed shelves are more sparsely stocked than usual in their favourite supermarkets.

Stores like Sainsbury’s, Lidl and Tesco have seen complaints from customers over lack of items in recent months.

The shops have acknowledged issues, with global supply problems impacting countries across the globe.

A Co-op spokesperson also said the supermarket had “experienced some minor disruption to some supplies locally” but added they were working closely with their suppliers “to ensure that consumers still have access to the same great selection of goods”.

On Twitter, concerned Brits have been sharing pictures of bare shelves.

Read More: Sainsbury’s urges customers to shop ‘one adult per household’

One wrote: “My local #Tesco today. Nothing on the shelves… and hardly any customers.”

Another shared a picture of an empty vegetable section and wrote: “Tesco yesterday, no salad at all.”

There are several reasons behind the low stock, with driving forces behind the lack of goods being previous stockpiling, events like Euro 2020, lack of drivers, the coronavirus pandemic and Brexit.

These issues combined have lead to supermarkets across the UK not receiving their planned supply.

Why are supermarket shelves empty?

1. Driver shortages

Earlier this month, the Road Haulage Association (RHA) explained one big trigger for low stock is the lack of HGV drivers in the UK.

One key business impacted is Haribo, which said it was struggling to supply its sweets to UK shops due to the dwindling driver numbers.

The reduction in HGV drivers is due to both the coronavirus pandemic and Brexit.

The Government has said to have been considering options, such as short-term visas for haulage drivers, however there are no plans as yet to introduce this.

Rod McKenzie, managing director of policy at the Road Haulage Association told BBC News: “We need long-term solutions to recruit a new generation of British lorry drivers into the trade, but short-term there is an urgent need for foreign drivers to be allowed in, under the Shortage Occupations list.”

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2. Coronavirus

Stockpiling at the start of the pandemic pushed stock to its limits for supermarkets, with key items like toilet paper, pasta and flour snatched from shelves in a panic.

As such, March 2020 saw the biggest month of grocery sales ever recorded in England, and home delivery slots for groceries were like gold dust.

And while the panic buying has subsided, the ongoing ‘pingdemic’ has seen workers having to isolate after coming into contact with positive Covid cases.

Richard Walker, the managing director of supermarket chain Iceland, said on Twitter: “The pingdemic is here and businesses need urgent change.”

Among those facing a barrage of isolation pings are factory workers and supermarket workers – pushing an already tight system to its limits.

Marks & Spencer CEO Steve Rowe said in a statement: “Where the industry will see the pain is in the supply chain because logistics runs tight anyway to be efficient.”

3. Brexit

The trigger for the driver shortage across the UK is Brexit, and the resulting lack of short-term visas.

The UK relies on the EU for much of its vegetable supply – with a 2019 study by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs showing 31 percent of the UK’s veg comes from Spain, 26 percent from the Netherlands, 5.1 percent from the Irish Republic, five percent from Germany and 4.7 percent from Poland.

Combine this with the reduction in drivers due to Brexit and shortages are inevitable.

The Road Haulage Association estimated the country’s shortage of HGV drivers before the pandemic was “in excess of 60,000” – and now EU national drivers have returned to their home countries due to Covid restrictions.

Shane Brennan, the chief executive of the Cold Chain Federation said: “The real crisis for food supplies starts now …

“This does feel very different to the past crises we’ve been through — the lockdown and Brexit preparations.

“This time we’re trying to do the job without labour and that is a very different challenge.”

Now business leaders have written to the Government calling for measures to allow Eastern European drivers back into the country.

Singed by the Food and Drink Federation, British Frozen Food Federation, Federation of Wholesale Distributors, Cold Chain Federation, British Meat Producers Association and the British Beer and Pub Association the letter asked for urgent action to be taken.

The letter read: “We firmly believe that intervention from the prime minister/Cabinet Office is the only way we will be able to avert critical supply chains failing at an unprecedented and unimaginable level.

“Supermarkets are already reporting that they are not receiving their expected food stocks and, as a result, there is considerable wastage.”

Fruit, vegetables and meat are likely to be impacted, with Shaun Leonard from trucking company Turners Soham, saying: “The worst is definitely yet to come.”

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