Boris Johnson hailed 19 July 2021 as “Freedom Day”, easing the last of the social restrictions imposed on the British public since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic 16 months earlier and drawing a line under some of the darkest days in our recent history.
The vaccine rollout had been a triumph, Covid-19 appeared to be on the ropes, Gareth Southgate’s boys had done us proud at Euro 2020 and a summer heatwave had descended. What could go wrong?
That question was answered just three days later, when eerie photographs of barren supermarket shelves began to appear on social media, forcing both the stores themselves and government ministers to urge shoppers not to engage in panic-buying in response to the apparent shortage of everyday goods.
The phenomenon felt like a return to the bad old days of March 2020 and the very beginning of the pandemic, when frantic consumers raced to gather up as many six-packs of toilet rolls and bottles of hand sanitiser as they could carry to ensure plentiful supplies at home should society indeed collapse in the manner of a Netflix zombie movie.
This fresh instalment of hysteria was blamed initially on a “pingdemic”, an explosion of notifications from the NHS Test and Trace app advising employees to self-isolate for 10 days after coming into contact with someone who has tested positive for the virus and therein causing chaos at workplaces across the country.
With no exceptions made and official policy still one of “contact isolation” rather than “contact testing”, the UK economy was apparently being hard-hit by staff absences in response to the smartphone-issued quarantine orders, a problem affecting every sector, from retail and hospitality to transport, tourism and manufacturing, causing shifts to be rescheduled and services to run late or be cancelled altogether.
But supermarket aisles left empty for the want of stackers or stock would prove to be merely the most immediately visible symptom of a range of issues that had been festering and were beginning to surface.
Given the highly intricate and interconnected nature of the global supply chain, in which outsourcing is common and a single product is seldom manufactured, assembled, packaged and shipped by one outfit alone, the chaos being wrought by Covid was not simply confined to Britain but playing out across the map, with sickness absences at factories anywhere potentially leading to bottlenecks and delays everywhere.
The NHS app was retooled to be less sensitive on 2 August, meaning fewer employees were unable to work at home, but still the problems persisted, prompting the pundits to look a little deeper for the root cause.
An underlying shortage of HGV drivers was also clearly playing a part, a long-term headache already exacerbated by Brexit and worsened by the complications associated with the pandemic.
The UK haulage industry estimated that Britain had lost 25,000 European lorry drivers in the wake of the EU membership referendum as they were forced to return to their countries of origin by tighter visa rules and the loss of free movement of labour principles.
The three successive national lockdowns imposed in response to the Covid outbreak meanwhile meant that as many as 40,000 applicants to the DVLA in Swansea hoping to take a lorry driver’s test had been unable to do so, their forms piled high and gathering dust.
Throw in an ageing workforce and British hauliers were facing a shortfall of as many as 100,000 drivers.
Iceland’s managing director Richard Walker told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme in late August that the lack of drivers had to be addressed by the government and was “impacting the food supply chain on a daily basis”.
“We’ve had deliveries cancelled for the first time since the pandemic began, about 30-40 deliveries a day,” he said. “Things like bread, fast-moving lines, are being cancelled in about 100 stores a day.”
Asked whether he blamed Brexit for the situation, Mr Walker did not hesitate to say yes, branding Britain’s decision to leave the EU “a self-inflicted wound”.
His sentiments were echoed by other supermarket bosses, members of the Shadow Cabinet and, eventually, even by transport secretary Grant Shapps and the Office of Budget Responsibility, the latter pointing to a 15 per cent fall in British trade with Europe as a contributor to the shortages.
For Trades Union Congress general-secretary Frances O’Grady, the rapid growth of zero hours contracts and the “casualisation” of work through the gig economy was another key factor.
“It’s not just about pay and conditions,” she said. “It’s about the business models that we have seen mushroom over the past 10 or 20 years.
“Supply chains are in peril. That should be a wake-up call for all of us. The solutions are quite simple. It’s about evening up that collective bargaining power and about treating people with dignity and decency at work.”
When the problems began to manifest anew in the shape of the flash fuel crisis of late September and early October, prompting drivers across the country to queue around the block for access to desolate service station forecourts, Mr Johnson’s Cabinet was forced to act.
It drafted in Army drivers to ferry petrol deliveries from distribution terminals to the pumps under Operation Escalin (a Brexit emergency backup plan hurriedly retrieved from a drawer), begged retirees to get back in their cabs and offered temporary visas to European hauliers, who were, understandably, not particularly inclined to help out.
That episode – propelled to an extent by some unhelpfully alarmist media coverage, centred around the inevitable shots of snaking lines of traffic – did eventually ease, but not before post-Brexit Britain had been likened to “boycotted Cuba” by Europe’s newspapers.
From the disastrous disappearance of Haribo to the nightmarish prospect of a world with no Irn-Bru, Walkers Crisps or Weetabix, here is a reminder of some of the key products we ran dry of in 2021, the year we went without.
One of the first victims of the HGV driver crisis was the German confectioner, who first reported supply issues on 2 July before the extent of the problem became frontpage news – a dire turn of events for Tangfastics loyalists.
Trade magazine The Grocer reported that Haribo had told its wholesale and retail customers that it was “faced with several challenges throughout our supply chain including a shortage of drivers” but was “working flat out to manage the situation”.
Hain Daniels, Suntory and Danone Waters were all said to be experiencing problems at the same time, prompting a number of food and drink associations to sign an open letter to the government calling on European hauliers to be allowed back into Britain to avert the nascent disaster.
Scandinavian dairy giant Arla, whose UK arm supplies milk to approximately 2,400 British stores each day, said on 30 July that it had been unable to complete deliveries to 600 shops the previous weekend due to the lack of drivers.
Ash Amirahmadi, managing director of Arla Foods UK, told the Today programme it would be “quite worrying” for consumers if they could not find as every day a product as milk at their local corner shop and called on the government to work with industry leaders to find a solution and avoid “a summer of disruption”.
PS5s and Xbox Series Xs
One shortage largely unrelated to the UK delivery crisis but still a source of major frustration to British consumers this year was the difficulty of obtaining Sony and Microsoft’s latest games consoles, the result of a spike in demand during lockdown and, more devastatingly, an international shortfall of semiconductors and other hardware components.
Tracking down a PlayStation 5 or Xbox Series X became a near full-time occupation, with devoted treasure hunters avidly following specialist social media accounts, chat rooms and liveblogs in search of the latest updates on stock drops, ready to pounce in case the likes of Argos, Amazon, Game, Smyths Toys or John Lewis happened to take delivery of a fresh batch.
By mid-August, Nandos and KFC were both running short of chicken (the raison d’etre of both businesses) while McDonald’s was unable to produce milkshakes or keep bottled soft drinks in stock.
Things were getting serious.
“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,” said British Poultry Council chief executive Richard Griffiths.
As lobby groups for the retail and transport industries wrote to the business secretary, Kwasi Kwarteng, to demand a solution, UKHospitality chief executive Kate Nicholls told The Independent: “Our figures show that 94 per cent of hospitality businesses are experiencing problems, with about two-thirds of those saying some goods simply don’t arrive, thereby reducing the menu they can offer customers and severely undermining sales.”
As more and more brands reported stock delivery problems, including Sainsbury’s, Iceland, Co-Op and Costa, one development that stood out from the crowd was the news that the JD Wetherspoon pub chain had run out of Carling, Coors and Bud Light, deliciously ironic given that its wild-haired founder Tim Martin had been one of Brexit’s most tireless evangelists.
Not even the cunning Swedes of Ikea were immune, the company telling The Independent on 3 September that all 22 of its UK stores were struggling to stock complete product lines, with 10 per cent of items affected.
“Like many retailers, we are experiencing ongoing challenges with our supply chains due to Covid-19 and labour shortages, with transport, raw materials and sourcing all impacted,” a spokesperson said.
“In addition, we are seeing higher customer demand as more people are spending more time at home. As a result, we are experiencing low availability in some of our ranges, including mattresses.”
Scottish soft drink company AG Barr became the latest company to be hit by the supply chain snarl-up on 28 September.
Chief executive Roger White said of delays to the shipping of his company’s signature product: “There is a tightness with drivers and we have had particular disruption too with materials, particularly aluminium cans. Inflation is all around us at the moment – materials, wages and supply among other things – so we have to be careful how we manage this.”
Fortunately, the situation improved in time for the Cop26 climate summit in Glasgow in November, when delegates from around the world were left variously bedazzled or perplexed by the bubble gum-flavoured soda.
Climate change was blamed for the bad wheat harvest that meant there was little pasta to be found on our supermarket shelves in October.
Extreme dry weather in Canada and heavy flooding in France and Italy had together conspired to create severe shortages of durum wheat, a key ingredient in this most elementary of staple foods, causing prices to soar by 90-100 per cent amid worldwide supply problems.
“It’s crazy. I’ve been doing this for 17 years, but I’ve not seen this before,” commented Eurostar Commodities director Jason Bull.
The precariousness of the UK’s agriculture sector is well documented but fresh concern was raised on 12 October when it emerged that tomato and cucumber growers were being forced to shut down production because of the exorbitant cost of keeping greenhouses heated and acquiring nitrogen-based fertilisers.
Potato farmers were also struggling to absorb massive increases in the cost of cold storage, the National Farmers Union (NFU) said.
“We have a very real risk now of exporting parts of our farming industry overseas and reducing the capacity of UK agriculture to feed the country,” warned the NFU’s vice president, Tom Bradshaw, calling on British supermarkets to pay their suppliers more.
As with the dearth of games consoles and pasta, this one was actually not caused by the lorry driver shortage.
Instead, Leicester’s favourite salted snack suffered an IT glitch while updating its software, resulting in widespread supply disruption and forcing the company to ramp up production of such lunchtime mainstays as Quavers and Wotsits.
Gary Lineker must have been inconsolable.
Another exception to the rule, a series of strikes by members of the Unite trade union at the Kettering and Corby plants that manufacture the popular cereal between September and November was the reason Britain found itself staring down the barrel of a Weetabix deficit.
The workers undertook the industrial action over working conditions and pay, accusing their employer of “fire and rehire” tactics, a practice the manufacturers denied engaging in.
Vegan sausage rolls
Greggs, the Newcastle-based budget bakery, scored a triumph when it launched a meat-free sausage roll in 2019, somehow managing to survive the sneers of Piers Morgan and see the Quorn-stuffed pastry become a high street favourite.
But that too was left in short supply in mid-November, with London particularly hard-hit, a blow for office managers hoping to entice staff back to their desks and a life of lunchtime meal deals.
Paracetamol and ibuprofen
Survey data, gathered by Kantar Public between 19 and 22 November and shared with the Office for National Statistics, revealed not just ongoing delays in crisp production but, more concerningly, a lack of over-the-counter painkillers.
One store in five was found to be running low on paracetamol and ibuprofen with the UK in the midst of winter flu season – although perhaps the reduced availability of wines and spirits will play into our hands here by resulting in fewer Christmas party hangovers and thus a reduced demand for the medication.