A shortage of delivery drivers would have led to thousands of pubs and restaurants being unable to open fully on the original ‘freedom day' of 21 June, the Federation of Wholesale Distributors (FWD) has revealed.
The FWD is calling on the government to use the extra month of restrictions to prevent the distribution problems happening again when restrictions end on 19 July, at the height of the holiday season.
Food wholesalers, producers and operators have been struggling to find HGV-qualified drivers to keep the food and drink supply chain running, even with the hospitality industry operating at well below full capacity. Many distributors have had to reduce the number of deliveries they make to shops and restaurants, or reduce the volume of stock available for customers to order, resulting in availability challenges in stores and kitchens.
Transport ministers have so far refused to adopt measures to alleviate the driver shortage, such as a temporary extension of the hours they can work, speeding up the qualification process for new drivers, and allowing hauliers from the EU and beyond to fill vacancies in the UK.
FWD chief executive James Bielby, said: "The driver shortage in the food supply chain is at crisis point, leading to massive waste and empty shelves. This week we met Department for Transport ministers and told them they need to operate on a crisis footing. They are not, and we're sleepwalking towards disaster.
"There were not enough delivery drivers to meet demand after indoor hospitality reopened in May. When you factor in hot weather, the return of major sporting events and British summer holidays, then add on top of that the sudden removal of all Covid restrictions, the supply chain would simply have buckled.
"Holiday season means more traffic congestion on the roads and more venues needing food and drink stock, which means more stops on the daily delivery run. If a driver can't complete their route within their shift, some small independent business is going to have no food to sell. If the undelivered stock is fresh or chilled food, it can't always go back into storage when the vehicles returns to base, or if it has lost useability due to delays, it will have to be thrown away.
"It's desperately sad that wholesalers and their catering customers who have survived on a knife edge for nearly 18 months will have to wait another month before they can start to trade as normal.
"But by keeping them waiting, the government unintentionally averted the supply chain failure that would have hit the UK next week. It has won itself an extra month to work with wholesalers and the haulage industry to find enough HGV drivers to keep the wagons rolling."
"If ministers don't heed this warning, we're looking at an even worse nightmare scenario on 19 July and it will Freedom Day in name only."
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