Christmas is coming, the geese are getting fat …. but they may not make it to supermarket shelves – at least not in the U.K. The country is suffering extreme labor issues and, what a supermarket manager has described as “the “worst food shortage” he had ever seen.

Another supermarket spokesperson has said that Christmas may have to be “cancelled”, and the problem is not only affecting supermarkets.

Restaurant chain Nando’s is reported to have closed 50 of its outlets, KFC has noted that some of its items and usual packaging materials are unavailable, while McDonald’s is no longer serving bottled drinks or milkshakes in England, Scotland or Wales.

Worsening by the day

In early August, The British Poultry Council revealed that it was facing a significant shortage of workers across farming and processing, with businesses reporting an average vacancy rate of over 16% in their total workforce.

It continued that the alarming number of gaps was continuing to grow due to the effects of Brexit, adding that its members had cut back weekly chicken production by 5-10%, all year round turkey production by 10%, and that Christmas turkey production would be down by 20%, although there was no mention of geese.

So what is behind the far-from, new normal in the U.K.?

While many countries are experiencing shortages of some sort or another due to the impact of COVID-19, in the U.K. the market is also having to come to terms with the new realities of Brexit and the labor shortages that have resulted from this.

It is not simply at production level that food supply is being affected. One supermarket chain has reported that there is currently a shortage of 100,000 heavy goods vehicle (HGV) drivers in the UK and that deliveries to 100 of its stores are being cancelled.

25,000 HGV drivers are said to have the left the UK over the last year, many returning to their countries of origin due to COVID-19. Now, it is far harder for them to come back, due to changes in immigration policy since the U.K. left the European Union.

To further complicate matters, as the country has been getting back to work, workers have been suffering from what has been termed the “pingdemic” - phone alerts requiring the receiver to isolate following contact with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19.

Seeking solutions

So how might the country be able to make up for this shortfall, further exacerbated by it being holiday season and Brits wanting to holiday overseas where they can.

The Association of Independent Meat Suppliers notes that it has been in contact with former service personnel and has spoken to the Ministry of Justice so see how its members could work with current inmates and ex-offenders. A few of its members already have inmates on release on temporary license and this has proved successful.

However, speaking on behalf of the association, Tony Goodger explained that however, hard it and its members tried, staffing remained a challenge.

Nick Allen, CEO of the British Meat Processors Association, has said that, although participation in these schemes is to be encouraged, they should not be seen as a quick fix to current labor problems. He continued that the problems that the industry is facing right now can only addressed properly by, in the short term, temporarily relaxing post-Brexit immigration rules.

The U.K meat industry is calling on the government to introduce a 12-month COVID-19 Recovery Visa to address the immediate crisis and to also revisit the Shortage Occupation List, adding to it skilled workers such as butchers and HGV drivers. It notes that, currently ballet dancers and artists are on the list!

If food is to reach the supermarket shelves – and remain affordable – that might be the best solution, however the U.K. continues to want favor the domestic labor force. Without change, a trip to the ballet might be a Christmas option, but otherwise it might be somewhat of a lean affair, and expensive too!

There are reports that some companies are now offering a GBP1,000 (US$1,400) joining bonus for new recruits, while in some sectors wages have risen by 30%. These additional costs will, at some point have to be passed on to consumers if businesses are to survive.