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The Combination of Brexit and COVID-19 May Have Changed Supermarkets Forever

The Food and Drink Federation (FDF) warns that “food shortages” — or rather, supply chain problems — could be permanent

Empty fresh produce shelves at Sainsbury’s are tended to by a staff member
Warnings of “permanent food shortages” are, more accurately, warnings that supermarkets will not be as seemingly infinite as they once were.
Justin Tallis/Getty

The outgoing head of the Food and Drink Federation (FDF), which represents U.K. food and drink manufacturers, says that the supermarket experience as Britain knew it is gone forever because of Brexit and COVID-19.

At a government event last week, Ian Wright warned that “the UK shopper and consumer could have previously expected just about any product they want to be on the [supermarket] shelf or in the restaurant all the time. That’s over. And I don’t think it’s coming back.”

This is not quite the “permanent shortages” that Wright later deemed a consequence, and which — because of the words “permanent shortages” — spread across news headlines at speed, but an admission that supermarkets, once perceived as infinite shelves impervious to the outside world, are indeed vulnerable to supply chain contractions; particularly heavy, long-lasting ones like those in play right now. It is less a regression and more a shattering of an illusion about how frictionless food supply in this country is.

That doesn’t make the cause of that shattering any less harder to swallow. The dovetailing of Brexit and the novel coronavirus pandemic has already put pressure on frozen food supplies; put Nando’s out of chicken and McDonald’s out of milkshakes; and led supermarkets themselves to forecast disruption into 2022. But 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 that’s the key reason why supply chain disruption is likely to persist.

The government says its culinary and social hobby horse, Christmas, is set to be “normal” in spite of all the disruption — it’s what will happen in the meantime and beyond that could reshape what going to the supermarket means in the U.K. now and in the future.