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by Andrew Learmonth
18 October 2021
Spotlight: Britain's bleak midwinter

Spotlight: Britain's bleak midwinter

Lincolnshire farmer Meryl Ward has 1,600 pigs that should already have gone to slaughter. But instead, they sit in their pens, growing, taking up space that should be going to younger animals, and getting too big to fit into supermarket packets.

The reason for the swelling swine is that they simply have nowhere to go. 

Abattoirs, like so many other industries right now, are facing a major shortage of staff. 

For Ward, that means her healthy, viable animals may need to be culled. 

“We have people in this country who are going to foodbanks, who can’t afford to pay for food, who don’t have enough food,” the farmer told the BBC, “and then we’re going to throw perfectly good food in the bin.”

Across the UK, the National Pig Association believe up to 120,000 porkers may need to be killed.

It’s not just bacon. Thousands of pounds worth of vegetables have been left rotting in fields because there’s no one to pick them. There have been reports of dairy farmers having to pour milk down the drain because there aren’t enough lorry drivers.

In their most recent market commentary, Quality Meat Scotland also said they were concerned the labour shortages in processing and transport could hamper what is normally a busy time for beef and sheep farmers. 

And as we come to the end of the tattie holidays, will there even be enough HGV drivers to get spuds into the shops?

For Iain Macdonald, senior economist analyst with QMS, Brexit is partly to blame: “Roughly half of the red meat processing sector’s workforce in Scotland is estimated to have originated outside the UK, and it is more challenging for UK businesses to recruit from abroad since leaving the EU single market.    

“Labour shortages in processing businesses are of particular concern given that the seasonal supply of livestock usually rises in the final quarter of the year to meet increased red meat demand over the winter. There are also concerns around shortages of drivers to transport livestock and meat around the country.”

NFU Scotland president, Martin Kennedy told Holyrood the situation had been a long time coming. The ramifications, he added, were in plain sight. He warned that rising costs for farmers would almost certainly mean rising costs for consumers. 

“A shortage of both permanent and seasonal workers, combined with a lack of haulage drivers and processing staff, is seriously impacting agricultural, food and drink businesses across Scotland.

“The implications of this ongoing shortage for business and the economy have been steadily building and the impact can no longer be absorbed by farmers and the food and drink industry.

"The ramifications are already in plain sight, focused on empty supermarket shelves, and the impacts are now being felt by consumers. This has been building for months so it is nothing ‘new’ for Christmas and we are seeking long-term solutions.

“Sharp increases in input costs at the farm gate especially for imported goods or materials will have to be taken into account in pricing along the supply chain as it is impossible for these additional costs to be absorbed by farmers. Consumers may begin to see increased prices on the shelves as a result.”

In terms of shortages, there’s been little interest in the temporary visas for overseas lorry drivers and poultry workers issued by the government. European workers don’t seem massively keen on a three-month contract that’ll see them turfed out of the country on Christmas Eve.

Ewan MacDonald-Russell, the head of policy at the Scottish Retail Consortium, told Holyrood it would be “nearly impossible” for shops to delivering the same Christmas service as in previous years.

“The biggest challenge remains the shortage of HGV drivers, who play an essential role moving food and other goods from farms/factories to warehouses, to shops. With a shortfall of around 90,000 drivers in the UK, the UK government’s creation of 5,000 visas will barely scratch the surface in alleviating the problem. 

“Grocery retailers alone require at least 15,000 HGV drivers for their businesses to be able to operate at full capacity ahead of Christmas and avoid disruption or availability issues.

“The government must rapidly extend its visa scheme, both in size and scope, to HGV drivers in all sectors of the retail industry. 

“Without action households across the country could face disruption this Christmas. That’s something retailers will do everything in their power to avoid; but it looks a tall order right now.”

It’s not just food that may be absent from our shop shelves this Christmas. Electrical goods and toys may not even be able to make it into the country because Felixstowe, Britain’s biggest port, is full.

Ships which would normally dock here, where 36 per cent of Britain’s container traffic is handled, are instead being diverted to elsewhere in northern Europe.

In his speech at the Tory party conference Johnson told delegates the shortages were a “function of growth and economic revival” as the UK adjusted to life outside the EU. 

Firms need to stop reaching “for the same old lever of uncontrolled immigration to keep wages low,” the Prime Minister said. “The answer is to control immigration, to allow people of talent to come to this country, but not to use immigration as an excuse for failure to invest in people, in skills and in the equipment, the facilities, the machinery they need to do their jobs.”

Post-Brexit Britain will be high skilled and high waged, he promised. But the problem remains that even if that is what happens there just aren’t enough British workers. 

According to the latest report from the Office for National Statistics, vacancies in the UK rose to a record high of nearly 1.2 million, with shortages across the whole economy.

Not all of these problems are unique to the UK. The shortfall in HGV drivers is partly a result of Brexit, but also partly because of the pandemic putting a pause on lessons and tests, and partly because conditions in the industry have been pretty miserable for years, with drivers forced to sleep in their cabins and pee in the bushes.

As for gas shortages - which will impact household bills and energy intensive businesses - a cold winter in Europe last year and an increase in demand from Asia means stored gas levels are much lower than normal and wholesale prices are significantly higher.

There are substantial supply chain challenges in the States too. The American Christmas Tree Association has already warned of reduced supplies and higher price tags.

Nevertheless, the next few weeks could help define Boris Johnson’s legacy as Prime Minister. 

Will he be remembered as the man who steered a world-changing deal on the climate through the COP26 summit, or will the lasting memory of his leadership be the Christmas we couldn’t get turkeys, trees and pigs in blankets?

Even if the shelves weren’t empty, skyrocketing fuel prices, high inflation and the end of the £20 universal credit uplift has left many stretched. And that’s before the new hikes in national insurance come in. 

Johnson’s cheery disposition as he jetted off to southern Spain, for his second holiday in 35 days, has seen him compared to Jim Callaghan, who went to Barbados as rubbish piled up on the streets during the winter of discontent in 1979.

But the comparison doesn’t really hold up. Sunny Boris, unlike Sunny Jim, has a majority of 80 and still commands the support of his party, who, according to the latest YouGov poll, are still ten points ahead of Keir Starmer’s Labour. •

Read the most recent article written by Andrew Learmonth - SNP minister's 'disappointment and loss' over Derek Mackay texting scandal

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