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UK struggles with shortages as it shakes off virus

By BO LEUNG in London | CHINA DAILY | Updated: 2021-10-08 07:07
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A shopper looks at produce and empty shelves of the meat aisle in Co-Op supermarket, Harpenden, Britain, on Sept 22, 2021. [Photo/Agencies]

Britain faces a crisis on a number of fronts, including supply chain delays, a fuel shortage at petrol stations, empty supermarket shelves and rising energy bills, which are all hampering the country as it tries to recover from the pandemic.

The effects of the pandemic, labor shortages and new immigration rules after the UK left the European Union and a shortage of about 100,000 qualified heavy goods vehicle drivers in Britain have added to the problems to the smooth running of the supply chain.

Karl McKeever, retail expert and managing director of Visual Thinking Group, said: "With much disruption still in the global supply system: factories still closed, unpredictable local lockdowns, pressure on a few key ports, the availability of ships, containers and even lorry drivers, it will take time for the normal patterns of production, distribution and retail activity to level off and return to normal. And it doesn't take much to create problems."

When the Suez Canal was temporarily blocked in March, the consequences were still being felt four months later, he said.

"Along with other major global economies, with UK factories and businesses closed for many months, and consumers now 'unleashed' to buy again-demand is at an unprecedented high across many sectors."

Heightened coverage of the crisis in the news and social media posts have worsened people's assessment of the supply chain issue and accelerated the surge in consumer demand, analysts say.

"This contagion of alarming news (is) fueling the consumers into panic buying behavior and making on overly tight supply lines worse," McKeever said, adding that with winter and the festive season approaching, it is likely that supply chain issues will continue to be prominent in the news.

"In the UK it's likely the pressure for fresh foods and animal products will continue, and for imported goods, such as children's toys and seasonal items."

Samir Dani, professor of operations management at Keele University in Staffordshire, said a shortage of heavy goods vehicle drivers has been made worse by Brexit, although it is not solely to blame.

"There have been a lot of discussions focused around Brexit and the pandemic, where there has been an exodus of European drivers, but that is only a small cause of the problem. There is a larger problem with the shortage of drivers."

Panic buying has made matters worse, he said.

Experts say the shortage has been exacerbated by delays in heavy goods vehicle driver tests because of the pandemic, new Brexit immigration rules, tax changes, poor working conditions, low wages, extremely long working hours and an aging trucker work force.

Some EU countries, among them Poland and Germany, are also facing a shortage of drivers, but the UK is particularly affected because of the combination of Brexit and the pandemic, Dani said.

To tackle Britain's supply chain crisis the government is issuing 5,000 emergency visas to foreign lorry drivers, valid until the end of February. But some experts say this will not tempt EU truck drivers back to the UK.

This is because there could be better opportunities where they are as the EU looks at improving working conditions, including hours worked and wages, Dani said.

While the situation at the fuel pumps should return to normal in a few weeks, that does not solve the driver shortage, he said, and if the UK government does not take urgent action, items such as Christmas products and food will be affected.

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