1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Post-Brexit Britain feels the supply pinch

August 26, 2021

A lack of qualified drivers combined with tough visa regulations are slowing down the country's supply chains. Food retailers like McDonald's have been hit. The Christmas season could stretch things to the limit.

A customer walks into a branch of a McDonald's restaurant in London
McDonald's says it has pulled milkshakes from the menu in all 1,250 of its British restaurantsImage: Alastair Grant/picture alliance/dpa/AP

The UK's decision to leave the European Union was about big, loaded issues. Pro-Brexiteers lauded the promise of saving jobs, bringing back control and less regulation. It would also give the UK more freedom on food safety and trade deals. It was not, however, about milkshakes.

But now suddenly, milkshakes are the talk of the country after McDonald's announced that they would temporarily be taken off menus across the country. Suddenly people are craving what they cannot have and are getting worried.

"Like most retailers, we are currently experiencing some supply chain issues, impacting the availability of a small number of products," read a statement sent to DW from McDonald's UK headquarters. "Bottled drinks and milkshakes are temporarily unavailable in restaurants across England, Scotland and Wales."

Chicken or beef?

The relatively small problems at McDonald's are far from being the beginning of supply chain issues, but it has brought it out into the open and could be the start of something bigger. With more than 1,450 restaurants in the UK and Ireland that employ 135,000 people, McDonald's is a major buyer. If such a behemoth cannot get what they order, how can anyone else?

And indeed others are feeling the pinch, too. Last week popular chicken restaurant Nando's had to temporarily close between 40-50 restaurants because of a lack of chicken. Another big chicken chain, KFC, announced via Twitter on August 11 that it was also running into problems.

"Just a heads up that across our country, there's been some disruption over the last few weeks — so things may be a little different when you next visit us … You might find some items aren't available," said the Twitter post. They were even having problems getting their normal packaging.

Other large UK chain restaurants contacted by DW either declined to comment or did not respond.

Who's at the wheel?

All these supply chain problems seem to come down to two things: a lack of licensed drivers to haul goods and a shortage of staff at food-processing facilities. Both issues can be traced back to Brexit, at least partially. 

Heavy goods vehicle drivers are needed to transport things from airports and seaports to warehouses and local shops in every corner of the country. After Brexit, many European drivers left the country. The UK Road Haulage Association (RHA) calculated that around 30,000 left the UK for their home countries.

Heavy goods vehicles waiting to leave UK
Trucks waiting to leave the UK on December 22, 2020 after France closed the border to traffic because of the coronavirus Image: William EDWARDS/AFP

Repeated requests to let in more immigrant drivers, even with only temporary work permits, have been ignored by the government. This has led some companies to offer big signing bonuses or even free training for those left in the country.

"Our major ask of government is to grant 10,000 temporary, so-called T5 visas, to EU drivers so they can come back in the short term and cover the gaps while UK workers train and qualify," Rona Hunnisett from industry group Logistics UK told DW.  This would be in line with "eight similar schemes already running, including ones for agricultural workers and those working in the arts." 

On top of the Brexit problems, COVID-19 has hit the industry in a dramatic way. Many drivers were forced to spend time in quarantine.

Additionally, the RHA says 40,000 driving tests were canceled due to the pandemic, keeping much needed new drivers off the road. To manage the backlog of qualifying tests "will take until the middle of 2022 to clear," said Hunnisett. In all, experts say the country now needs 90,000-100,000 drivers to stop unused goods from stacking up at warehouses.

Who's at the factory?

Another Brexit-related labor shortage is adding to the situation. After the UK left the European Union, it wasn't only truck drivers who looked for the exit. Thousands of other foreign workers also left. Many of them worked in unskilled low-paid jobs in food processing, a place many domestic workers try to avoid.

In June, the British Poultry Council pointed to what was coming. Of the 40,000 workers in the industry, 60% are EU nationals. As more EU workers leave and do not come back, big backlogs of unfilled jobs are piling up. Some poultry producers have reduced their output by 10%. The industry association more recently warned there may not be enough turkeys to go around for Christmas.

Empty drinks shelves at Sainsbury's in Rowley Regis in July, 2021
Empty shelves and an apology at Sainsbury's in Rowley Regis in JulyImage: Matthew Cooper/AP Photo/picture alliance

This pattern is being repeated across many food-making industries. Besides fresh meat, in the past few weeks there have been wide reports of supermarkets without workers and without milk, which is probably what's behind the disappearance of McDonald's milkshakes. A lack of aluminum has also kept some soft drinks and beer off the shelf, too.

All together these supply chain issues are taking a hit at the country's shaky post-Brexit, mid-COVID economy and raising fears of inflation. Luckily, the UK depends much more on the service sector than manufacturing, which cannot survive without constant deliveries and pickups.

Yet these supply chain problems are unnerving the UK public who cannot get what they want — and not just on social media. When diners cannot sip their favorite milkshake or savor their favorite chicken sandwich, it brings Brexit directly to their table and calls into question the idea that leaving the EU would bring back control.

Timothy A. Rooks
Timothy Rooks One of DW's business reporters, Timothy Rooks is based in Berlin.