In a dramatic escalation of government acceptance of the scale of the crisis facing retail, the prime minister admitted that the problems are “acute” and affect businesses across the UK.
Sir David Lewis has been appointed in a temporary capacity as supply-chain tsar to try to ease blockages up to the end of the year, in a reflection of official concern that Christmas could be spoilt by disruption to the availability of food and gifts.
Deliveries of large numbers of products have been disrupted over recent months by a shortage of HGV drivers estimated by the Road Haulage Association to stand at around 100,000 – of whom about 30,000 are EU nationals who stopped working in the UK because of Brexit.
The UK’s withdrawal from the EU, which took effect on 1 January, has also meant expensive and time-consuming new red tape at borders, as well as sharp rises in charges for sending parcels to and from the continent.
Sectors which were reliant on migrant labour from the EU, often coming for seasonal work over a few months a year, have, in many cases, found themselves unable to recruit homegrown replacements. Farms have been reported as being forced to leave fruit unharvested for want of pickers, while a cull of an estimated 120,000 pigs is under way because of reduced capacity at meat-processing plants.
And supply-chain problems have been massively exacerbated by the pandemic, which has interrupted the steady flow of imports and exports around the world.
The cost of shipping from China has surged over the course of 2021 from around $2,000 (£1,450) to $14,000 or more per 40ft container, though there have been signs of price pressures easing in recent weeks.
The truck driver shortage has led to snarl-ups at commercial ports. Last month, Felixstowe told customers that it was restricting the return of empty containers because its storage yards were overfull.
Downing Street said Sir David will “assess and resolve acute supply issues facing businesses across the UK”.
This will include advising Mr Johnson and cabinet office minister Stephen Barclay on long-term changes to supply chains, as well as working with government officials on action to resolve short-term blockages swiftly.
He will co-chair the new Supply Chain Advisory Group of external experts as well as the new Industry Taskforce, to listen to concerns of professionals.
Mr Johnson said: “I’m pleased that Sir David Lewis is joining the team who have been working on future-proofing our supply chains across the United Kingdom as we recover from the pandemic.
“There are currently global supply issues which we are working with industry to mitigate and Dave brings a wealth of experience which will help us continue to protect our businesses and supply chains.”
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer criticised the PM for “refusing to take responsibility” for shortages and “offering only jokes and slogans”.
Speaking during a visit to a breakfast cereal factory in Manchester, Sir Keir said: “Boris Johnson failed to act when industry warned him of driver shortages months ago, allowing this chaos to develop.
“Without an adequate plan to recruit and train more drivers now, the chaos will continue as demand rises in the run-up to Christmas.
“Britain needs a high-wage, high-productivity economy but this government has no plan to get there.
“Instead, wages are stagnant, bills are rising, and the Conservatives are raising taxes on working families and small businesses.”