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Fred Searle

BY FRED SEARLE

Friday 27th August 2021, 15:48 London

UK food chain calls for Covid Recovery Visa

Cross-industry report calls for new visa to help supply chains recruit more overseas staff amid serious labour shortages

UK food chain calls for Covid Recovery Visa

Shortages of HGV drivers and other workers have hit supply chains hard

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The UK food and drink sector is calling for a 12-month Covid-19 Recovery Visa to help alleviate the workforce shortages that are causing serious disruption across the supply chain and significantly increasing the cost of food supply.

This request is set out in a new cross-industry report which has been sent to government ministers, highlighting the impact the pandemic and post-Brexit immigration policy are having on the industry’s ability to recruit key workers. 

The report was produced by accounting and advisory organisation Grant Thornton on behalf of a number of trade associations spanning most areas of food and drink. These include the NFU, FDF, Federation of Wholesale Distributers, Road Haulage Association and The Cold Chain Federation.

It reports an average vacancy rate of 13 per cent and estimates there are more than 500,000 vacancies across food and drink businesses.

With a view to ensuring continuity, quality and choice in UK food supply, both in the immediate and medium term, the report sets out a number of ways government can help the industry overcome the current workforce challenges. These include:

- The introduction of a 12-month Covid-19 Recovery Visa to enable all sections of the supply chain to recruit staff such as HGV drivers, as a short-term response to labour shortages.

- A commitment to a permanent, revised and expanded Seasonal Worker Scheme for UK horticulture to ensure it is flexible and large enough to meet the industry’s workforce needs.

- An urgent review by the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) on the impact of ending free movement on the food and farming sector, in the same way it is doing for adult social care.

NFU vice president Tom Bradshaw said: “For the past 18 months food and farming businesses have been working hard to keep shelves and fridges full of nutritious and affordable food, but as this report demonstrates, businesses throughout the supply chain in a wide variety of roles are really feeling the impacts of the workforce shortages.

“At the very start of the supply chain, farm businesses are feeling the pressure. For example, horticulture farms are struggling to find the workforce to pick and pack the nation’s fruit and veg, with some labour providers seeing a 34 per cent shortfall in recruitment.

“Farm businesses have done all they can to recruit staff domestically, but even increasingly competitive wages have had little impact because the labour pool is so limited – instead only adding to growing production costs."

He added: “It is simplistic to argue that the end of furlough will see many more people meeting this shortfall, but furloughed workers are concentrated in urban areas and not where many agri-food roles are located. A solution to this crisis will need the right people with the right skills and training available in rural areas where many roles are based. 

“A short term Covid Recovery Visa, alongside a permanent Seasonal Workers Scheme, would be an effective and, frankly, vital route to help the pressing needs of the industry today. 

“It would also give us time to invest in the skills and recruitment of our domestic workforce, helping to provide long-term stability so we can recruit the people we need to continue to deliver quality, nutritious and affordable food for the nation.”

Chief executive of the Food and Drink Federation, Ian Wright, added: “Drawing on a wide range of evidence, the report illustrates the breadth and scale of the issues confronting the industry. The report makes it crystal clear that today’s labour shortages are caused by a multitude of structural factors beyond those created by Covid-19 and the end of the Brexit transition period.

“The recommendations set out within this report, including the Covid Recovery Visa and measures to support domestic training and skills development, the adoption of new technologies and career promotion, provide industry and the Government with highly practical solutions.

“They will ensure that the food supply chain continues to thrive with a strong and skilled workforce. However, it is also evident that without fast action the labour challenges will continue. If they do, we can expect unwelcome consequences such as reduced choice and availability for consumers, increased prices, and reduced growth across the domestic food chain.”

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