School meals could be disrupted for the remainder of this term by delays and shortages of food supplies across the country as a result of a dearth of lorry drivers in the UK.
Sheffield city council wrote to schools last week warning they may have to rely on emergency standby ingredients such as fish fingers and dried pasta to feed their pupils.
School cooks would be supplied with two days’ worth of standby ingredients in case the supply chain failed. “Some last-minute changes may have to be made to menus … This is clearly not what anyone would want in the last weeks of the school year,” the letter said.
The UK road haulage sector has a shortage of 100,000 lorry drivers. A warning to the prime minister was sent from the Food and Drink Federation, British Frozen Food Federation, Federation of Wholesale Distributors, Cold Chain Federation, Meat Producers Association and the British Beer and Pub Association.
“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,” the groups’ letter said.
Rod McKenzie, managing director of policy at the Road Haulage Association, said the shortage of lorry drivers was a “critical issue” which was having a “real impact on a whole range of different sectors”.
He told the Observer: “We desperately need the government to help us by loosening the current immigration restrictions and speeding up lorry driver testing.”
About 15,000 European drivers had left the UK since the start of the year, and about 30,000 HGV driving tests were lost last year because of Covid restrictions, he said. Those numbers added to a historic shortage of 60,000 drivers which meant the shortfall was now more than 100,000.
“The government needs to act fast before food supplies get to a critical level,” he said. It was “completely unsurprising” that school meals were now being affected.
A spokesperson for the Local Authority Caterers’ Association said its members “will have in place continuity measures to ensure minimal disruption to food supply in these circumstances”.
Wholesale distributors Bidfood, which supplies frozen and dry food to a catering firm that services Sheffield’s schools, has faced difficulties with driver shortages. Some deliveries had arrived late and some had failed to arrive at all, according to Sheffield city council.
Companies supplying them with meat, poultry, fruit and vegetables had not been affected as they use vans rather than 18-ton lorries.
The challenge of driver shortages was being felt “right across the supply chain”, Andrew Selley, chief executive of Bidcorp UK, Bidfood’s parent company, told the Observer.
“We’re asking the government to relax drivers’ hours, as well as add them to the list of skilled workers to enable recruitment of drivers from the EU talent pool.
“In order to get things moving, it’s imperative that the government invests in the backlog of HGV tests currently stopping thousands of potential drivers becoming available. Our latest recruitment drive for HGV drivers has proved very successful. However, we now have a large number of applicants currently awaiting their tests before they can start working for us.”
Jayne Dunn, Sheffield city councillor responsible for education, children and families, said the council was “working hard to put contingency plans in place to mitigate the impact any delays may have”.
Tesco, the UK’s biggest retailer, said earlier this month that it had drawn up plans to deal with a shortage of HGV drivers.