Published: 15:25, 28 August 2021
| Updated: 15:27, 28 August 2021
Shelves at Christmas and even as far ahead as Easter 2022 could be left empty as a result of the lorry driver shortage, according to two leading business figures in the county.
And a side-effect, of what is emerging as a supply chain crisis, is likely to be a rise in the cost of goods for shoppers.
Speaking during KentOnline's The Lowdown, streamed live on our Facebook page, Graham Pask, South East area manager for the Road Haulage Association said the government's efforts to solve the issue was "ludicrous" and urged Boris Johnson to add drivers to the list of essential workers who can come from the EU to work in the UK as a short-term solution.
He said: "I don't think the government has taken on board how serious this is. Christmas starts in the logistics industry on January 1 - that's when the build-up happens. These problems have been going on all year.
"We've been lobbying the government for months but their solution was extending the number of hours lorry drivers could work. That's like flogging the donkey to death. They were already working too many hours and now they're being told to work harder. It's ludicrous. It's unsafe. That's not a solution."
His views were echoed by Adrian Ling, boss of Folkestone-based manufacturer Plamil.
He explained: "The supply chains are hugely complex. For us, we're a manufacturing company, we make chocolate. We're purchasing 300 individual items which go into another 100-150 items we're distributing. I've heard there's maybe a 1-2% hiccup in supplies. Well that's maybe six items. But where we have our production schedules, which are all complicated, if one item doesn't turn up that can have a huge impact on everything we make.
"We started to see it in March and April and it's been getting worse ever since.
"It's a combination of Brexit, Covid and, I'd say, the mishandling of the management of those. We will see this as a growing problem until some of these issues are sorted out."
It comes amid a flurry of recent announcements from major retailers and those in the hospitality industry about the impact they are already feeling.
Pubs in the county have already said their pumps have been running dry due to supply chain problems.
McDonald's warned earlier this week it had run out of milkshakes at its restaurants, Nando's was forced to temporarily close a number of its Kent outlets due to supply chain problems, KFC has warned its menus may be restricted, while the likes of Greggs, Costa and Subway are also facing supply problems.
The chief executive of the Co-op said "the shortages are at a worse level than at any time I have seen" and the boss of Tesco has warned of shortages at Christmas.
Adds Graham Pask: "It's a perfect storm of issues. We've had an on-going issue of a lot of drivers ageing and more coming off the end of the chain that coming on at the start.
"Because of Brexit, a lot of the European drivers went home. The Road Haulage Association has asked, for the short term, that they be put on the essential workers list. UK drivers don't want what they see as cheap European labour. Nevertheless we need drivers.
"We also need new drivers coming in. We've just had a whole year of no new drivers getting licences - that's 40-45,000 not coming into the industry. So we need to tempt people to come back to the country.
It's ludicrous. It's unsafe. That's not a solution.
"But, to be honest, even if we said you could come back here we're not alone because it's felt across Europe."
Added Adrian Ling: "From our conversations with European suppliers and customers, the UK situation is far worse than elsewhere in Europe. They are not as acute as they are here. Europeans are coping with it far, far better.
"If we can't can't get drivers, we have to pay more, the end result is the consumer will pay more for goods. The cost of over-stocking, so we don't run out of things, has to be paid for and it's the end consumer that will pay for this. There is no doubt of that.
"If people think it won't affect them, it will.
"People were saying this wouldn't happen before Brexit. Covid has exacerbated it.
"As a chocolate manufacturer, we're already looking to Easter next year and we're already seeing delays in packaging coming to us and that will have severe consequences.
"We have to deliver Easter eggs at Christmas, but if we don't get the packing in time, Easter won't be delivered.
"I don't think we'll see a food shortage, but choices will reduce and prices will go up, I believe."
Threatened industrial action by drivers over existing pay and conditions is also adding to the headache, with walk-outs risking supplies to 1,500 Londis and Budgens stores and branches of Sainsbury's across the South East.