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Food industry demands short-term covid recovery visa

There are currently half a million vacancies across food and drink businesses, leaving animals stuck on farms, retailers short of stock and everyone scrabbling to attract staff.

The sector is under “immense pressure” noted a cross-industry report, as it broke down the “chronic labour shortages” up and down the supply chain.

Covid has exacerbated the problems, so too Brexit, but the report details a number of factors that have coalesced to create the current crisis. These include a reliance on migrant labour, negative perceptions of the sector, skills shortages and competition from other businesses.

The National Pig Association (NPA) this week said new stricter rules on EU workers coming to the UK, furlough, the expansion of jobs in other sectors and the ‘pingdemic’ have left the sector on the edge of a “major crisis”.

“This will lead to empty retail shelves, which is likely to result in more imports,” said NPA chief executive Zoe Davies. “The government is aware of the severity of the problem but appears unwilling to act,” she added.

Food and Drink Federation chief executive Ian Wright warned ministers to prepare for more “unwelcome consequences such as reduced choice and availability for consumers, increased prices, and reduced growth across the domestic food chain”.

Last month, Nando’s was forced to shut dozens of outlets as suppliers struggled to keep up with demand. Driver shortages have also hit dairy supplier Arla, with some food businesses buying smaller vans in order to overcome the lack of HGV drivers.

McDonald’s also had to stop selling milkshakes, while JD Wetherspoon is experiencing shortages of some beer brands. The Grocer also reported that schools in England were being warned to “stock up”.

The new report, written by Grant Thornton, spearheaded by the NFU and supported by 11 other food and drink organisations including UKHospitality, warned that a “failure to act at this crucial time could have serious implications for the sector’s sustainability, UK food security and the country’s future food supply”.

As a priority the organisations called for a short-term covid recovery visa. This would last for 12 months to help alleviate the workforce shortages. The seasonal worker pilot scheme should also be revised and expanded, with immediate action also taken to alleviate the shortage of HGV drivers.

The hospitality sector is highly dependent on EU workers, with 24% of the hospitality and tourism workforce pre-pandemic being made up of non-UK nationals, of which 48% were from EU countries.

Going forward, the government must also work on promoting the sector as a career choice, identify “mitigations” in the immigration system and provide greater incentives for apprenticeships.

Across the 73 businesses who responded to a survey by Grant Thornton there was an average vacancy rate of 13%. Extrapolate that to a national level and there is “potentially in excess of 500,000 vacancies”.

The latest ONS figures show UK job vacancies at a record high, with the hospitality sector reporting a 10% vacancy rate – equal to 210,000 roles. This has left businesses struggling to make the most of consumer confidence.

A UK Hospitality survey, supported by data from CGA, showed that 56% of consumers visited a hospitality venue in the first 10 days after ‘freedom day’ in July – a much faster return to venues compared to last summer’s reopening.