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CO2 crisis: Why you shouldn’t panic buy

The lorry driver shortage and dearth of CO2 have thrown UK supply chains into chaos – but panic buying isn’t the answer. Here’s what you need to know.

Empty shelves in supermarkets are back, people have been forced to learn why carbon dioxide is so important to the food industry and there are concerns about long queues at petrol stations. Pressure is mounting on the government to fix the UK’s lorry driver shortage and stop disaster in the energy sector.

It’s a perfect storm for panic buying and now retailers and fuel giants are pleading with the public not to stock up unnecessarily, despite warnings of limited goods in the coming months.

McDonald’s, Nando’s, Wetherspoons, Bernard Matthews, Greggs, pet food suppliers and construction companies have all reported shortages of the products they need. Even Christmas tree suppliers are warning of shortages in the run-up to the festive season.

So what are the factors contributing to the crisis in supply chains, and how worried should we be? The Big Issue explains.

Should I panic buy?

No.

While the situation in UK supermarkets is serious, it is not likely to mean people have to go without what they need. In fact, panic buying is the biggest threat to supply levels across the country, and to vulnerable people too.

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It can set off a domino effect which leaves people on low incomes – who can’t afford to buy any more at once than they normally would – with less chance of being able to buy the supplies they need for a cost they can afford. 

It also puts people without private transport, particularly poorer, disabled and elderly people, at a disadvantage because the amount they can carry is limited.

Pictures showing empty shelves are isolated incidents, supermarket bosses have said, but the issue could spread across the country if people start stocking up unnecessarily.

It’s important not to return to “those dark days” of early in the first lockdown when shelves really were bare, said Richard Walker, managing director for Iceland.

Tesco is calling on the government to act on the lorry driver shortage before the situation worsens, but the potential for widespread panic buying is as great a worry for the company as its lack of drivers.

“Our concern is that the pictures of empty shelves will get ten times worse by Christmas and then we’ll get panic buying,” Andrew Woolfenden, Tesco’s UK distribution and fulfilment director, told ministers.

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But the company has “good availability, with deliveries arriving at our stores and distribution centres across the UK every day,” a Tesco spokesperson told The Big Issue.

“While the industry-wide shortage of HGV drivers has led to some distribution challenges, we’re working hard to address these and to plan for the months ahead, so that customers can get everything they need.”

There are fears the problem could hit petrol station forecourts too because there are too few drivers to transport fuel across the country. Long queues are already being reported at petrol stations across the UK as motorists worry about keeping their tanks filled.

Why is there a lorry driver shortage?

In short, the pandemic and Brexit.

Visa changes for European workers, restricted travel due to the Covid-19 crisis, a backlog in driver tests, poor working conditions and low pay mean thousands of people either can’t fill the vacancies or are seeking different kinds of work.

Tesco has a shortage of 800 drivers, it told the government. The supermarket has been offering bonuses of £1,000 to entice new drivers. But that’s just part of the 100,000 shortfall reported by the Road Haulage Association, which is having a significant effect on the UK’s food and drinks industries.

The National Farmers Union said the number of vacancies is closer to 500,000.

Many drivers returned to their homes in other countries when Covid-19 hit the UK and did not return – or could not because of post-Brexit changes in working visas. And now the pound is weaker against the euro, the notoriously poor pay for lorry drivers is failing to attract new workers, though some companies have been offering dramatically increased wages as an incentive.

The pandemic created a massive backlog of HGV drivers waiting to sit tests, meaning around 25,000 fewer people could be given the green light to take up lorry driving jobs in 2020 compared to 2019.

How will the lorry driver shortage be fixed?

The government first responded by relaxing the rules around how long a lorry driver can drive in a day.

But that’s not the answer, industry bodies warned, criticising the government for putting drivers at risk.

“The problem is immediate, and we need to have access to drivers from overseas on short-term visas,” said Richard Burnett, chief executive of the Road Haulage Association.

Simplifying training and speeding up testing would ease pressure on the sector in “a year or two’s time”, he said.

The National Farmers Union (NFU) is leading calls from industry bodies for the government to create a year-long “Covid recovery visa”.

It would allow supply chain employers to hire the workers they need in the short term, they said, and allow time for new UK staff to be recruited and trained.

The idea has the backing of a number of businesses and politicians, including London mayor Sadiq Khan, who wants the government to overhaul its immigration practices to meet the country’s labour needs.

“When it comes to immigration, many politicians seem to be too scared to argue for what they know is needed,” Khan said.

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“The truth is that a flexible migration system that can attract talent from around the world will always be crucial.”

Without something like the Covid recovery visa put in places, “more shelves will go empty and consumers will panic buy to try and get through the winter,” an open letter from the NFU said.

A government spokesperson said it was “streamlining the process for new HGV drivers and increasing the number of driving tests”.

“Progress is already being made in testing and hiring, with improving pay, working conditions and diversity,” they added.

Boris Johnson is reportedly considering bending visa rules to tackle the crisis.

What does CO2 have to do with supermarkets?

While the lorry driver shortage hammers the transportation of food and drink from manufacturers to shops, a carbon dioxide shortage is also putting the products Brits are accustomed to buying under threat.

CO2 is an essential part of the food packaging process as well as being used to make fizzy drinks, cheese, beer, baked goods and to extend the store life of fruit and vegetables.

It’s also used to stun animals for slaughter. A shortage could result in a major shortage of chicken and pork, the industry warned, as well as the culling of millions of animals.

Production of carbon dioxide was stopped at two plants in England last week because the natural gas needed in the process was becoming too expensive – a problem also affecting household fuel bills. The plants, in Cheshire and Teesside, are responsible for 60 per cent of the country’s CO2 supply.

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