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Brexit Supermarket Food Shortages Aren’t Going Away Anytime Soon

Most of the U.K.’s biggest supermarkets expect emptier shelves and less choice into 2022

Empty supermarket shelves at Tesco, caused by Brexit and Covid-19 supply chain disruption
An empty supermarket shelf at Tesco.
Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Supermarkets are struggling with Brexit

Brexit architect Nigel Farage might be sighing with relief after his political hobby horse briefly stopped McDonald’s’s milkshake supply, but its impact on U.K. supermarket food shortages is likely to go well beyond the temporary. Numerous supermarkets, including Co-Op, Iceland, and Marks and Spencer, are presenting grave projections of supply problems well into 2022, leading to some predictable headlines about “cancelling Christmas.”

As in the restaurant world, the COVID-19 pandemic has both masked and deferred the arrival of labour shortages and transit problems. The sudden disruption that was expected come January 2021 didn’t really arrive — except, most notably in the case of shellfish producers left with rotting product at the border — but now, with online delivery receding and “traditional” supermarket visits returning, empty shelves and limited choice are becoming more and more familiar.

That doesn’t mean that talking about labour shortfalls is clear-cut. There are indisputably fewer EU workers in the U.K., but many of the roles causing supply chain disruption — meat production plants, fruit picking farms, and warehouse work — were previously reliant on low pay and cramped conditions, whose precarity and risk only became more evident during the COVID-19 pandemic. This is prompting calls and action to raise wages, which may increase food prices, but these wages were already too low. The government is reluctant to make the visa changes that would again allow EU workers to fill these roles, a route which would both solve the “shortage” and keep wages down, rather than improving them. This purgatorial feedback loop is unlikely to resolve itself anytime soon, and in the meantime, disruption will continue. [Independent]

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