Iceland boss: Christmas at risk from HGV driver shortages and supply chain crisis – business live | Business

Iceland managing director, Richard Walker Photograph: Iceland/PA

Christmas is at risk from the supply chain crisis unless the government adds HGV drivers to its skilled worker list quickly, the managing director of supermarket chain Iceland has warned this morning.

Speaking on Radio 4’s Today programme, Richard Walker explains that the UK faces “big shortages” of HGV (heavy goods vehicle) drivers, of around 100,000 drivers. Iceland itself is short of around 100 drivers. And he blames the government’s handling of Brexit for the problems.

The driver shortage is impacting the food supply chain on a daily basis, and leading to shortages on the shelves, Walker confirms.

We’ve had deliveries cancelled for the first time since the pandemic began, about 30 to 40 deliveries a day.

Fast-moving lines such as bread are being cancelled at around 100 stores a day, meaning Iceland is selling out of bread at some outlets and struggling to replenish its stocks quickly, while soft drink volumes are down 50%.

Walker explains that the festive season is now at risk, given it takes months for retailers to properly prepare:

Of course we’ve got Christmas around the corner, and in retail we start to stockbuild really from September onwards for what is a hugely important time of year.

We’ve got a lot of goods to transport between now and Christmas, and a strong supply chain is vital for everyone.

The reason for sounding the alarm now is that we’ve already had one Christmas cancelled at the last minute. I’d hate this one to be problematic as well.

The simple solution, Walker explains, is that heavy goods vehicle drivers need to be added to the UK’s skilled workers list, to help get drivers recruited from overseas.

These men and women, these HGV drivers, have kept the show on the road for 18 months during the pandemic and it’s criminal that we’re not viewing them as skilled workers.

Q: So is Brexit, and the departure of a lot of drivers, responsible for the supply chain problems?

Yes, Walker replies, but it’s a “self-inflicted wound” rather than an inevitable consequence of Brexit, caused (he says) by the government’s failure to appreciate the importance of HGV drivers.

Even if drivers were immediately added to the skilled workers list, it would take four to six weeks to get them onto the road (they need to be recruited, pass ‘right to work’ check, have a PCR test, and find somewhere to live), Walker warns.

It’s not a light switch that’ll happen overnight.

Longer term, we need to replace with UK workers, Walker adds [this is also what the UK government is pushing for].

It’s undoubtedly a tough job, and a skilled job, Walker says. Iceland is raising its pay rates at its depots, but bringing in UK workers into the industry will take time — and won’t help with Christmas.

I think the market will correct itself. But the problem with bringing in UK workers is that will take six months.

We need to find these people, train them up, they need to get Class One licences. We’ve got Christmas to sort out between now and then.

Other possible solutions, such as bringing in the army, longer hours, bigger trucks, are just “sticking plasters”, Walker concludes.

The average age of a HGV driver is 56. We need to recruit more domestically, but that will take time. In the meantime, let’s get them on the skilled worker list so that we can bring more drivers and get our supply chains running.

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