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Brexit-COVID Food Shortages Are Coming and They’re Starting in the Freezer Aisle

Supermarkets and logistics groups warn of “inevitable” problems in supply this summer

An empty freezer section at a U.K. supermarket, caused by Covid-19
Empty shelves and freezers could return
Ollie Millington/Getty Images

The twin forces of COVID-19 and Brexit are having a well-documented effect on London’s restaurants — both exacerbating labour shortages and shining bright lights on the structural problems that cause them. Now, they’re set to wreak havoc on supermarket food supply, creating summer shortages of chilled and frozen foods, according to the Guardian.

With the lifting of COVID-19 restrictions delayed until at least 19 July and stringent travel restrictions keeping would-be holidaymakers at home, there is an increased demand being met with a decreased supply, thanks to the combination of Conservative policy limiting freedom of movement and COVID-19 hastening the departure of many EU workers that would have left the U.K. because of that policy regardless. This labour shortage extends to businesses along the supermarket supply chain like packaging firms, warehouses, and food production facilities, which were themselves hotspots for coronavirus earlier in the pandemic and frequently rely on low-paid workers on insecure contracts.

This storm, both unprecedented and entirely predictable, is expected to cause significant outages in cold chain food supply to supermarkets, according to Shane Brennan, the chief executive of the Cold Chain Federation. He said, “The real crisis for food supplies starts now ... This does feel very different to the past crises we’ve been through — the lockdown and Brexit preparations. This time we’re trying to do the job without labour and that is a very different challenge.”

What makes it a different challenge is the convergence of two crises which have, up to now, been more shadow-boxers than conspirators. At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, supermarket shortages were common, while frozen food sales soared. Long-foretold warnings of Brexit food shortages hit exports of fish and cheese first. But now the problems are coming in tandem, and supermarkets are already facing up to a difficult summer.