The government has been slammed for failing to provide details of efforts to ease HGV driver shortages amid fears over Christmas alcohol supplies.
Schemes to tackle labour shortages were criticised by MPs during a parliamentary debate when trade minister Ranil Jayawardena refused to disclose how many temporary visas had been taken up by foreign drivers in the run-up to Christmas.
Jayawardena said he was “not going to provide a running commentary” on how many visas had been granted but insisted: “We continue to see businesses thriving, including in the wine and spirit industry.”
Shadow trade minister Bill Esterson said: “I find it extraordinary that the minister was unable to tell us how many visas have been allocated to overseas HGV drivers. We were told in October that it was just 20; I wonder what the figure is now.
“The reality is that the Wine and Spirit Trade Association (WSTA) warns of delivery chaos, of major delays on wine and spirit delivery times – which are up to five times longer than last year – and increases in freight costs. No doubt it won’t affect parties in Downing Street.
“Does he want to be responsible for cancelling Christmas celebrations elsewhere, because if not, he needs to give a much better answer than the one he just gave.”
The WSTA, which previously wrote to transport secretary Grant Shapps to warn it was taking some businesses 15 days to receive deliveries of wine, told Supply Management the situation had not improved.
“We haven’t had an update from government on this issue and the situation hasn’t got any better for the companies delivering our Christmas booze,” said a spokesperson, adding Omicron and the possibility of restrictions on hospitality were a further concern.
The shortfall of UK HGV drivers is currently estimated to be 80,000. MPs were told France had a shortage of 40,000 drivers, Germany 60,000, and Poland 120,000.
Ed Baker, managing director of Kingsland Drinks, which supplies around one in eight bottles of wine drunk in the UK, said it would expect to trade around 3m litres of wine a week during the festive period but port congestion and driver shortages had impacted operations.
Baker said: “The backlog of late deliveries has meant container spaces at the rail hubs are in high demand. We would normally expect to have 80 to 100 tank spaces, but at the moment we can be down to 10 to 20.
“This is limiting the amount of liquid getting to our plant and comes on top of the HGV driver shortages doing the deliveries. The driver surcharges will drive up costs and if products are turning up late it could lead to some festive drinks not making it onto supermarket shelves for Christmas.”
The Wine Society, the world’s oldest wine club, told SM getting supplies to the UK had been “very challenging”, while demand for wine was up on last year's record.
A spokesperson said: “We have been planning for Brexit for a long time but, despite these preparations, moving stock from vineyards in Europe to the UK has been very challenging, with many delays.
“If you want a particular bottle or brand it would be wise to order sooner rather than later, as demand is higher this year than last as people order more drinks for, Covid permitting, renewed large family gatherings.“
Mark Hughes, regional VP of UK & Ireland at supply chain tech firm Epicor Software, warned alcohol supply difficulties could persist beyond New Year celebrations into 2022.
He said: “Every stage in the supply chain is a potential weak link, so moving to less complex supply chains, such as British distributors and retailers buying more products manufactured in Britain, could also help businesses meet end-to-end expectations.”
He added: “Britain is known for its high-quality whisky and scotch, as well as some types of wine, so businesses will likely be looking for wholly domestic supply chains for alcoholic products in the near future.
“The reality is that we see these types of issues continuing into 2022, so the sector should prioritise getting visibility into any issues that will cause delays, rather than just crossing their fingers and hoping it doesn’t happen.”
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