December is the most important month for the food supply chain © Leon Neal/Getty Images
December is the most important month for the food supply chain © Leon Neal/Getty Images

Food supply chain 'clinging on by fingernails'

20 December 2021

A surge in Covid-19 cases caused by the Omicron variant has led to more worker absences in Britain’s food supply chain than at any point in the pandemic so far, according to an industry body.

Shane Brennan, CEO of the Cold Chain Federation, told Radio 4’s Today programme companies were seeing shifts cancelled at “probably a higher rate than we have seen any other period in this pandemic”.

“It’s less of a pingdemic and more of a case of people actually contracting the illness,” Brennan said.

“It’s a really stressful uncertain window of time. This is probably the most important four weeks for the food supply chain and this level of uncertainty hour by hour is a real problem.”

Nevertheless Brennan reassured consumers workforce absences would probably not disrupt Britain’s Christmas food supply.

He said that the bulk of the frozen food destined for Christmas tables had already been delivered and that the emphasis was now on delivering fresh food – mostly for supermarkets, as demand from the hospitality industry was slowing.

“We have contingencies built on contingencies for the supermarket supply chain so we expect to be able to get through to Christmas with the food people need but it’s going to be a very difficult period – we’re going to be clinging on by our fingernails.”

Brennan said one reason why cold chain workers might have been suffering so many illnesses was because of workplace gatherings.

“It’s very difficult to stop people having parties. They’ve been working in crisis mode for two years and we need them to be motivated to work,” he added.

So far the latest surge in Covid-19 cases has not led analysts to anticipate any major food shortages this Christmas.

A government decision to allow thousands of seasonal poultry workers to enter the UK to ensure supplies appears to have paid off.

While the Wine and Spirit Trade Association has warned of possible shortages of alcoholic drinks this Christmas due to the HGV driver shortage, it appears this is unlikely to affect whole categories of alcoholic drinks or spirits.

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