Week in and week out through the seemingly unending trials and tribulations of the past 18 months, the UK’s cold storage and distribution businesses continue to do our industry proud. Their people’s resilience, flexibility, experience and determination is crucial in supporting their customers to keep shelves full, re-open dormant businesses, and keep the UK’s food chain running.
In many ways UK society, politicians and media are viewing our industry with new eyes, an industry they were hardly aware of before. As the nation takes stock of all that has taken place and turns its attention over coming months to Building Back Better, it is up to us to make sure that the contributions the cold chain can make feature prominently and are properly respected and valued.
However visions for the medium and longer-term future are currently overshadowed by the immediate and urgent shortage of people that business across the cold chain are experiencing right now, particularly acute for drivers but also increasingly in warehouses, on packing lines and in our farms.
While we are relieved that the easing of restrictions is allowing many of our customers to increase their operations, the job of ramping up dormant supply chains and reconfiguring networks is being hindered by the current dramatic shortage of people available to work. People’s lives have changed in the past 18 months and there are employees coming off furlough who are deciding to retire or take time off, at the same time that many non-UK nationals are unable or reluctant to work away from home under current restrictions. For haulage in particular, these issues are exacerbated by the IR35 tax changes which are limiting businesses’ ability to draw on agency and sub-contract driver capacity.
Whilst these short-term issues are certainly front of mind right now, they are set against a backdrop of poor facilities, undervaluing of skilled work and a major recruitment problem in the next generation. So while I am urging Government to take the common-sense immediate measures such as extensions to CPC renewals, speeding up driver testing and extending medicals which will help ease current pressures, we must also recognise there is no quick fix.
Taking action to tackle the logistics industry’s longer-term workforce issues is crucial which is why the Cold Chain Federation will bring together our industry with Government over the coming months to talk about the longer-term path forward as well as temporary solutions. It is time to discuss how Government and business can work together to attract more young people into our industry and invest in the crucial skills which are already in short supply.
As our industry looks ahead to a strong and prominent role as the nation Builds Back Better, we need a robust and meaningful cold chain skills plan which gives greater recognition to the value and skill of careers in, for example, temperature-controlled driving and cold warehouse operation. There must be a focus on improving training opportunities and driver facilities on the road, and on future-proofing the cold chain skillset as we move towards net zero.
As businesses navigate the workforce crisis in the immediate term, the UK cold chain is also anticipating significant disruption in the weeks following 1st October 2021 when the new post-Brexit checks and processes will be required on goods imported from the EU. We have already seen the disruption and dramatically reduced trade levels that resulted when the processes came into force for goods exported from UK to EU, and there is little reason to hope that these effects will be cushioned for goods coming the other way. We are encouraging EU partners to prepare for new rules and what they mean on the ground wherever possible.
So the cold chain’s Covid and Brexit rollercoaster has some way to go before we move to a period of greater stability. Just like the dual short and long-term considerations around labour shortages, as businesses repeatedly have to firefight urgent Covid and Brexit challenges we also need to look further ahead as an industry if we are to carve out a strong role for the cold chain within the national movement to Build Back Better.
I believe it is in the Government’s drive for a net zero economy where the cold chain will come to the fore. This certainly sets the context for new conversations about the positive environmental impacts of the cold chain. It must become better understood by polticians and policy makers that an efficient, responsive, and flexible cold chain cuts food waste and helps manufacturers, retailers, consumers and Government itself to meet their own climate goals.
It is also an opportunity for our industry to set out how the cold chain can adapt to the ending of use of fossil fuels, improving energy efficiency and reducing traffic on our roads. We can tackle these challenges in ambitious but realistic timeframes, provided that Government’s fiscal and policy decisions give businesses the consistency and confidence needed to invest in a net zero future, and to recruit and train people for the skills that will be needed.
The Cold Chain Federation is working on your behalf to make this case to Government and to make sure that the crucial contribution, constant hard work and focused innovation of our industry are properly understood and valued as the nation works to Build Back Better.