The drinks industry has warned that Christmas partygoers may face a shortage of their favourite tipples unless the government takes further action to address the UK’s acute lorry driver shortage.
The Wine and Spirit Trade Association said in a letter to the transport secretary Grant Shapps that delivery orders were taking up to five times longer to process than a year ago, creating “hugely damaging” impacts for businesses and consumers.
Miles Beale, chief executive of the WSTA said that without urgent action ahead of the Christmas rush, the industry would “fall deeper into delivery chaos” which is already limiting the range of products available to UK consumers.
“Government needs to be doing all it can to ensure British business is not operating with one hand tied behind its back over the festive season and beyond,” he added, noting that typical order delivery times had extended from three to 15 days.
The association urged the government to extend its temporary visa scheme for 5,000 lorry drivers, which currently expires on February 28, while also speeding up the processing of a backlog of tests for driving licences caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.
The demands were backed by 48 companies from the industry, including The Wine Society and major brands such as Laurent-Perrier, Corney & Barrow, Tanners Wines, Moët Hennessy and the Campari Group.
Beale warned of growing pressure to pass rising costs on to consumers, with smaller businesses particularly hard hit as they struggled to compete with larger firms in a tight market for drivers and logistics capacity.
“While businesses are doing their best and being as flexible as they can, this loss of certainty and predictability is hugely damaging for their supply chain — and ultimately their bottom line, consumers, and tax revenue.
“It is imperative that [the] government takes immediate steps to help mitigate the impact of the driver shortages crisis before the Christmas period,” he wrote.
The UK haulage industry has faced a chronic shortage of drivers since the economy reopened this summer, caused by a combination of Brexit making the recruitment of EU drivers illegal and the pandemic, leading many older UK drivers to retire.
In a sign of marginal improvement, the Road Haulage Association told the Transport Select Committee on Wednesday that the UK driver shortfall had dropped by approximately 15,000 drivers over the past six months, from a high of 100,000 this summer.
But the Committee heard that the industry was still facing immense pressures that were likely to be visible in shops this Christmas in the form of reduced choice.
Shane Brennan, chief executive of the Cold Chain Federation which represents perishable goods delivery companies, said that plans were in place to concentrate deliveries on core products.
“We are very good at piling high and selling cheap at Christmas time. What we have to do is strategically scale that back in order to meet the promise that there will be the stuff you expect to see on the shelves, but not necessarily all the extras,” he said.
The government has committed to investing more in making the truck driving profession more attractive to UK workers, including improving conditions on the road.
Elizabeth de Jong, policy director at Logistics UK, a trade body, said that the lack of decent parking facilities with proper showers and toilets was a key barrier to boosting recruitment to the profession.
“This is preventing individuals — particularly women, who only make up 2 per cent of HGV drivers — from remaining in or wanting to join the workforce,” she said.
The Department for Transport did not immediately return a request for comment.