Central Bylines is running a series of articles examining the UK’s supply chain crisis. This week, the crisis has ratched up a notch or two. The occasional tweet about the lack of organic semi-skimmed in Waitrose has become a flood of photographs of empty freezer cabinets and cardboard fake fronts on supermarket shelves. Even Radio 2 is catching on. The first story on their news bulletins this morning is about the pressure of staff shortages on supermarkets.
What’s the problem with supermarkets?
The pingdemic is being blamed for the situation – Iceland Foods has reported that 3% of its workforce is currently self-isolating – but the situation is more complex than that. One by one, vital components of the Jenga tower that is our supply chain have been taken away. The pingdemic appears to be a block too far and the tower has finally tumbled – or at least wobbled violently – but many other blocks had already gone.
- pre-existing staff shortages: even discounting the effects of the pandemic, there is already a shortage of skilled workers in industries such as meat processing.
- stock-piling: retailers stock-piled goods against the departure of the UK from the EU in January. These stockpiles may now be spent.
- decrease in imports: the trade of goods between the UK and the EU has slowed by about 20 per cent since Britain left the block in January.
- the shortage of HGV drivers within the UK has impacted the distribution of goods around the country.
- our home-grown produce is going to waste because there is no-one to harvest it. Meanwhile, Tesco imports cauliflowers from Poland instead.
- the hot weather has increased demand for fresh produce such as soft fruits and salads, perishable items that are impossible to stockpile. Their continued supply is entirely dependent on a functioning supply chain.
- and finally, the pingdemic. The uncontrolled spread of the delta variant throughout the country left more than 600,000 people self-isolating last week.
What’s being done?
After frantic talks with industry leaders (plus increasing pressure from its own disgruntled MPs) the government yesterday announced that workers from sixteen key sectors (including food production and supply and essential transport) will no longer have to isolate for ten days if pinged but only until they have shown a negative PCR test. The policy will apply to named workers in approved workplaces who are fully vaccinated.
There will also be a separate pilot of daily contact testing for key workers so that contacts who would otherwise self-isolate can take daily tests instead. Testing sites are being urgently established with a plan is to expand to hundreds of sites in the coming weeks.
While this action is welcome and may alleviate the pingdemic problem, it does nothing to replace the other Jenga blocks in our supply chain that have been removed.
Other articles from this supply chain series