David Read, founder & chairman of Prestige Purchasing discusses the current shortage of HGV drivers and the outlook for supply in our sector

In the summer of 1940 Hitler launched his invasion of Russia. It involved over three million troops, 3400 tanks and 2700 aircraft. In spite of huge technical superiority, and enormous early successes, the invasion ultimately failed. It did so for many reasons, but at its heart were supply problems. The extended supply lines, providing ammunition, diesel and food when combined with the winter weather weakened the attacking force to such an extent that they were forced to abandon the exercise.

In 2021 we are thankfully not at war, but the pandemic has generated some highly extreme circumstances within which the supply of food, drink and many other goods can no longer be considered stable and predictable. As the German army discovered, we ignore the essential nature of reliable supply at our peril, as supply failures can totally wipe out success, even if there are many other positive aspects of the endeavour.

Last week jobs website Indeed reported that searches by EU-based jobseekers for work in the UK were down 36% year-on-year during May. For hospitality and its supply chains the fall was 41%. Hospitality operators reading this will know only too well the struggles of employing staff in the current environment but may be less familiar with just how chronic the challenges are within our supply chains.

This week UK food distributors have called for the army to be mobilised to prevent the imminent breakdown of the country’s food supply chain, due to a critical shortage of HGV drivers. The Federation of Wholesale Distributors (FWD) has warned that its members are facing unprecedented challenges in getting food deliveries out to the restaurants, pubs, schools and care homes that they serve.

This crisis has been in the pipeline for a long time, but with Brexit drastically halting recruitment from the EU, a huge backlog of HGV driving tests caused by the pandemic and IR35 tax changes leading many drivers to quit the industry, this shortage has now tipped the sector into genuine crisis. The FWD said “The shortage of drivers is now critical. We are meeting with ministers this week to discuss options, which we believe should include having army drivers on standby to ensure food distribution is not interrupted.”

Among the proposals it intends to put forward is a temporary extension of drivers’ hours, perhaps limited to multi-drops in remote areas and regions with a food supply threat. The association has also called for an end to furlough for HGV drivers and a waiving of requirements for both medical certification and Certificate of Professional Competence (CPC) in the case of drivers’ whose CPC has expired.

What is clear for hospitality operators is that this is both a serious systemic problem, and one that will not be resolved quickly, particularly as the re-opening of the sector will not complete for at least another month.

It’s serious because shortages of supply can cripple a restaurant’s ability to deliver for the customer. This week I have heard many reports of lengthened order lead-times and imposed minimum delivery sizes and service levels. Whole deliveries have been regularly missed. Stock-outs are common. Reports of hotels capping occupancy levels because of supply shortages, and restaurants restricting menu ranges are all too frequent. And it’s long-term because the solutions are complex and will take time to implement. The fact that many suppliers are putting a freeze on new business highlights how they feel they must concentrate only on servicing their existing customers as well as they can.

What is certain is that we don’t suddenly have a whole industry of bad suppliers out there. Indeed, we should be grateful for the fact that we have a strong, diverse, experienced and generally well-invested supply community who will grapple with these challenges and ultimately prevail.

But these challenges are systemic, and they are not just a minor and temporary blip caused by the sector’s re-opening. our suppliers will need our support and understanding and raised levels of positive collaboration to adapt requirements - to ensure that the storm is weathered by our industry. This is a time to reach for the phone, not the contract drawer.