THIS week’s announcement by fast-food chain Nando’s of a temporary closure of dozens of its restaurants in Great Britain because of supply-chain woes would, in normal times, have come as a major surprise.
After all, the UK has not been a country over recent years and decades to have suffered dramatic supply-chain disruptions.
Of course, countries around the globe faced huge disruption on many fronts when the coronavirus pandemic hit last year, and many UK supermarket shelves were empty.
However, things quickly stabilised.
Then we had the European single market exit at the end of last year, and we now have what certainly looks like a much more enduring supply-chain crisis.
So the news from Nando’s, while disappointing for some lovers of its marinated chicken, will have come as no surprise at all for people in the business world and for many consumers who are fast becoming inured to Britain being a place you can no longer get things, or at least not when you need them.
There have been widespread reports of major, and costly, supply-chain disruptions across the UK construction and manufacturing sectors for quite a while now, as highlighted by the likes of the Chartered Institute of Procurement & Supply in its surveys and by Scottish Engineering chief executive Paul Sheerin. CIPS reported earlier this month that UK construction firms were facing “widespread supply chain delays”, declaring: “Survey respondents noted that supply imbalances were amplified by a lack of transport availability, port congestion, and Brexit trade frictions.”
John Irvine, chief executive of Aberdeenshire housebuilder and construction company Bancon Group, this week noted “current headwinds regarding materials supply being experienced by the industry”, although he talked about his business being well-placed to weather these.
Some current supply-chain difficulties, such as shortages of semiconductor chips, are global issues, but many appear peculiar to the UK or at least far worse here. That has certainly been the message from the poultry sector this week.
And supply-chain woes have certainly manifested themselves on supermarket shelves in Britain again this year. Interestingly, the period from spring last year, after the initial food-supply crisis was tackled, to December 2020, crucially before the UK left the European single market, was not characterised by supply-chain failures on this front.
Responding to various customer enquiries this week about closed stores and some delivery issues, Nando’s tweeted: “The UK supply chain is having a bit of a ‘mare right now. This is having a knock-on effect with some of our restaurants across England, Scotland and Wales. We are doing everything we can to get the PERi-PERi back where it belongs – on your plates.”
The announcement from Nando’s predictably sparked debate about the degrees to which the chicken-shortage woes were the result of the so-called “pingdemic”, a made-up word to highlight the number of people having to self-isolate amid the coronavirus pandemic, and Brexit.
Brexiters, it seems, always prefer to blame the “pingdemic”. Nando’s said “Covid-related factors such as [the] pingdemic have compounded issues in the UK food industry in recent weeks”, signalling an acknowledgement of pre-existing problems.
It is surely impossible to argue the departure and non-return of huge numbers of lorry drivers from European Union countries from the UK in large part because of Brexit, and the impact of leaving the single market on staff availability in food manufacturing have not seriously hampered the supply chain. And hammered its resilience at a time of crisis.
The Road Haulage Association, which is getting its information from the real world and not from social media, has made it plain Brexit is a major factor in the current heavy goods vehicle driver shortage crisis.
Another interesting point is that Nando’s has confirmed its outlets in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland have been unaffected by the supply-chain woe. Remember in this context that goods can move freely between the EU, including the Republic of Ireland, and Northern Ireland, under the terms of the Brexit deal between the bloc and the Johnson administration. So this would appear to tell a story about the extent to which Brexit is at the heart of the Great British supply-chain shambles.
And Avara Foods, one of the UK’s largest chicken suppliers to the supermarket and restaurant sectors, declared it is “not currently experiencing any significant inconvenience” as a result of the so-called pingdemic.
This is hardly likely to be music to the ears of the Johnson administration or the Brexit camp.
What is more, Avara Foods declared: “Our concern is recruitment and filling vacancies when the UK workforce has been severely depleted as a result of Brexit – this is causing stress on UK supply chains in multiple sectors.”
This certainly chimes with what we are hearing from other sectors.
Avara Foods also made a good point about the long-term outlook for Britain’s new-found supply-chain problems.
It said: “Labour availability is an issue totally separate to the pandemic, and one which has the potential to affect UK foods manufacturing for a lot longer.”
And British Poultry Council chief executive Richard Griffiths made plain his view that the current problems were Brexit-related.
He said: “When you don’t have people, you have a problem and this is something we are seeing across the whole supply chain. The labour crisis is a Brexit issue.”
Mr Griffiths also noted woes had been reported across multiple sectors.
James O’Brien, author of How Not To Be Wrong: The Art Of Changing Your Mind and presenter on radio station LBC, tweeted news of Mr Griffiths’ remarks with his by-now-familiar “oh”, which he has been using frequently to observe Brexit’s myriad, and predictable, detrimental effects.
While Nando’s understandably commands the headlines because of its scale, we must not forget that supply-chain troubles are affecting businesses of all sizes.
Marco Giannasi, owner of the landmark Battlefield Rest bistro on the south side of Glasgow, this week cited logistical challenges as one of the reasons for a decision taken not to open on Sundays.
He tweeted on Monday: “We have taken the difficult decision to return to being closed on a Sunday from the 6th Sept. This is to help with the general well-being of our staff. Also due to logistical difficulties in getting fresh produce. Thank you so much for your support.”
Last week, he highlighted challenges on finding staff, tradesmen, spare parts, and products, amid the pandemic and in the wake of Brexit.
Mr Giannasi tweeted: “How extraordinary has been such a strong demand on all industries, sectors either on finding employees or tradesmen or simply spare parts or products. The “Pandemic & Brexit” has created a New Assault Course for us to challenge.”
The restaurateur, like so many in the sector, has shown real resilience and innovation to ensure the continued success of his business, and overcome the enormous challenges created by multiple lockdowns.
The last thing that the hospitality sector, or any other for that matter, needs right now is further disruption arising from problems which could be fixed or at least mitigated if there was a will to do so on the part of those in power.
There were repeated loud (and ignored) warnings from the hospitality sector about the impact of Brexit on the availability of workers, given the importance of EU staff to this industry in the UK.
Now, as trade thankfully rebounds strongly for the likes of restaurants and some hotels, many of these businesses are being constrained by staff availability.
The shortage of hospitality workers and HGV drivers could obviously be mitigated in the short term by making it easier for people from EU countries to work in the UK, reversing the clampdown seen in the wake of Britain’s exit from the single market. But there appears to be no will at all on the part of the Johnson administration to reverse its detrimental actions. Rather, it appears that the worse things get, the more stubborn the Conservative Government becomes.
Nando’s, for its part, has been lending some of its staff to suppliers to “get things moving again”, and enable speedy reopening of affected restaurants.
This obviously makes perfect sense from a business perspective but it is another sign, which should be plain for all to see, of the dismal situation in which the country finds itself.
Already this month, we have had talk of the Army having to help out to get food on to supermarket shelves.
The Johnson administration really needs to get a grip. Obviously, the situation is an embarrassment for the UK in an international context but more importantly it is causing great damage to businesses and the economy, as well as to households.
Boris Johnson and his ministers need to be brave enough to admit there is a problem, and the real causes.
Hopefully, they will do so before more time passes. Proper leadership and action are needed, and fast. However, we cannot bank on it being forthcoming.