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A shortage of lorry drivers is resulting in fresh produce being dumped or left to rot in cold stores, while supermarket shelves and restaurant plates go empty, produce suppliers and retailers warn.
The driver deficit – the worst in over 20 years, according to driver recruitment agency Driver Require – is the result of an exodus of EU drivers post-Brexit and government failure to recruit a replacement workforce. The coronavirus pandemic, which has prevented driving tests and training for over a year, as well as a hike in driver costs, has exacerbated the shortfall.
Haulage companies are therefore struggling to deliver goods – either imported or domestically produced – to UK retailers and restaurants, causing delays and product losses, and empty plates and shelves, distributors say.
Tesco, the UK’s biggest supermarket chain, is understood to have informed the UK Government’s Department of Transport that its suppliers are being forced to bin nearly 50 tonnes of fresh food every week because there are too few lorry drivers to transport produce to stores.
Meanwhile, the Federation of Wholesale Distributors (FWD) is so concerned that it has urged the government to consider having Army trucks on standby to ensure there are enough vehicles and drivers to distribute food.
“It’s shocking, but it’s true. The acute shortage of HGV drivers is now the direct cause of perfectly good, graded and packed fresh produce being dumped or left rotting in coldstores,” Tim O’Malley, managing director of major UK produce distributor Nationwide Produce, told FPJ. “In all my years in fresh produce I’ve never seen anything like this. Goods are being produced, but not delivered.”
The current situation – dubbed a national crisis by some suppliers – is predicted to get worse as the UK continues to open up after lockdown, and demand increases from hospitality and retail.
Brexit clearance issues and a global shortage of shipping containers are further deepening transport problems for imported produce, one source told FPJ.
“The driver shortage has reached crisis point for some of our members and we believe it is likely to get worse as more hospitality venues open and demand increases,” said FWD chief executive James Bielby.
“With the estimated 70,000 shortfall in HGV drivers, some wholesalers have had to limit the number of deliveries they make to convenience stores which has led to some availability issues.
“We’ve asked the government to re-instate the temporary extension of drivers’ hours (from 9 to 11) which was in place last year but ended recently. Other proposals we are putting forward include ending furlough for HGV drivers, temporarily waiving requirements for medical certs and CPC for those which have run out, and using army drivers to deliver to vulnerable communities.”
Meanwhile, in an open letter to the FPJ, Nationwide Produce’s O’Malley urged produce industry suppliers to work with hauliers and customers to get through this crisis.
“I would urge you not to shout at your hauliers and threaten them with bills, as that will get you nowhere – work with them to find solutions,” he wrote. “Customers will have to be far more flexible on delivery times. We also need to stop hauling fresh air around the country. Full pallets and full loads are what we need in a crisis like this.”
O’Malley added that customers need to be more flexible on date codes to allow direct deliveries from abroad. “I’m sure this will eventually lead us all to adopt better practices, but for now we need to work together to find a way through this crisis,” he said.
Alex Veitch, general manager – public policy at Logistics UK, added: “With a large pool of potential candidates available, owing to the nation’s higher unemployment, Logistics UK is urging the government to make HGV driver training affordable, accessible and attractive for all.
“Our 2021 Logistics Report shows that 29 per cent of logistics businesses anticipate that they will be unable to fill vacancies for HGV drivers this year; a further 14.5 per cent expect long delays before filling a role. With the logistics industry in urgent need of these workers, Logistics UK is urging the government to include training for HGV Drivers in their list of courses funded through the National Skills Fund to reskill potential employees and help recruit them into the industry.
“Logistics UK is also urging the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency (DVSA) to maintain its fast-track programme to catch-up on at least 30,000 driving tests that were postponed due to COVID-19 between March and December 2020; this has left thousands of potential HGV drivers waiting in the wings when the UK needs them most to support every facet of UK PLC.”
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“What came first, the chicken or the egg?” has puzzled humans for generations, but even more puzzling is finding yourself, on a Wednesday afternoon on King’s Parade, asking a man who has just stepped out of a trash can after you’ve frantically waved at him through a tiny slot: “What came first, the busking or the bin?”
Charlie Cavey has become an iconic figure to the Cambridge community for years – yet he remains relatively unknown. Unlatching the bin from the inside to climb out, Cavey reveals himself as a sunburnt man in a pink Hawaiian shirt. He tells me he was going to get a coffee and returns with a domestic-style pink china mug. It seems that this randomness is integral to his character. “This must be about my twenty-first or twenty-second summer, and it all started because I was working for myself, punting on the quayside. I was on the quayside touting, and a bin lorry pulled up next to us, and he (the driver) went over to the bin. He reached in and opened it up and took the bin out and was emptying it in his lorry. I looked at this empty bin and thought ‘I think I could fit in there,’ and that’s pretty much what happened. He put the bin back, shut the bin and I said to my friend ‘watch this’ and reached in, found the latch and opened it. I couldn’t play the guitar at the time. I learnt it the following winter and so the following summer when we all got back and started punting again, I showed my friend a few songs and he said ‘why don’t you try and do that in your bin?’ I said it was logistically impossible, and he said ’no feed the neck of the guitar through the hole, and hey presto that’s it twenty years later.”
“I looked at this empty bin and thought ’I think I could fit in there”
A fixture well documented on social media and frequented by celebrities – Tyson Fury was seen singing along to Oasis with him last summer – he explains that “people walk along, they hear the music, they look around confused and then they see the arms sticking out the bin and think ‘What?’ and then they take pictures.” But it’s not all plain sailing. The University hasn’t taken kindly to him in the past. A Tab article in 2016 called him ‘the worst thing about Cambridge’ and in 2012, students were reprimanded by colleges for an incident involving stink bombs and bleach being thrown into the bin. Interestingly, Cavey seems to be one of the only buskers in central Cambridge that isn’t using an amplifier. I ask cautiously about his opinion of the university students, rightly expecting a negative response, but Cavey tells me “nine-nine point nine percent of it has been absolutely positive. If a busker played the same thirty or so songs outside my bedroom window, and it’s not just a bedroom, it’s like their flat, it’s their bedsit – for a year, I would understand, I can completely empathise with their annoyance. Sadly their reactions have let them down, but it’s only a handful. And it’s really only going to be these guys who live here. And it’s alright, it happens, it’s merely a lack of ability to communicate on their part.”
I ask him what’s changed over the years, if reactions and song choices have evolved, but he is most frustrated about the evolution of bin design. He used to busk by on Bridge Street and pick which one to play in at random, “I used to use them all along that street, it didn’t matter, it depended on how I felt that day. Then one day I turned up and they were moving them all. They were replacing them, I don’t know how long you’ve been here but before they were aluminium they were fibreglass and so I had to buy my own.”
The last twenty years have witnessed a series of bins and music, but Cavey’s career does not consist of just busking: “for the last four years before lockdown I ran a kids music club called Mr Baboon’s Dancing Tunes and I’ve managed to find a proper job Monday to Friday now at the school where my kids attend.” Cavey seems incredibly content with his lifestyle; he’s not interested in releasing music or changing careers anytime soon. “I started to realise how much fun it really is, because I’m forty-two and just through wisdom and having lots of other jobs I’ve kind of realised that this is one of the nicest ways to live, the money might be less but the lifestyle is better. Because I get out of bed when I want, I start when I want…I don’t answer to anybody and I get to play music and make people happy which is pretty ideal for me.”
“I’ve kind of realised that this is one of the nicest ways to live, the money might be less but the lifestyle is better”
I ask if this lifestyle is a heavily communal one, if there is camaraderie or competition between the buskers. He’s not massively involved: “because I’ve got two children of my own, I come into town, busk and go home. I know a few of them, though having seen them and liked what they’d done and gone over and introduced myself. But maybe three or four, there probably is a nice community and there are a lot, you’ll see a lot more a lot closer to summer.”
His laid back attitude is admirable, and a career in busking seems to never afford a dull moment. In fact, he’s met Bob Geldof, Carol Vorderman, Gregory Porter. Crowds of people take an interest in his unusual busking format and remember him for summers to come, partly because of the unusual format of the bin, but also because it is clear that this is someone who does what they love, however eccentric. Love him or hate him, he’ll never know anyway, in his continual unflappable way he tells me,“I turned the news off eight or nine years ago. I hear everything from mouth, it makes it a much nicer world.”
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