Brexit hangover for UK pub chain as beer runs dry

·3-min read

UK pub chain JD Wetherspoon was one of the most enthusiastic and vocal supporters of Brexit.

But now, faced with staff shortages further exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, analysts say that its chief Tim Martin is beginning to reap what he sowed in campaigning so vociferously for Britain to leave the EU.

The pub chain, which even printed special pro-Brexit beer mats before the 2016 referendum, was forced to concede this week that some of its 925 pubs had run out of two of its top-selling lagers due to shortages of lorry drivers and staff and a supply crunch linked to both Brexit and the pandemic.

"The lorry driver shortage is the latest Brexit-induced headache to afflict Wetherspoon," Hargreaves Lansdown analyst, Susannah Streeter, told AFP.

Well-known beer brands such as Coors and Carling "are running dry in many venues as there simply are not enough deliveries taking place. So far, the post-Brexit era has not provided much cheer for the pub chain," she said.

The hospitality sector had already been shuttered by lockdowns during much of the pandemic, but reopened earlier this year.

Nevertheless, Wetherspoon is not the only high-street chain to suffer from shortages of drivers and staff as a result of post-Brexit recruitment rules and coronavirus restrictions requiring people to self-isolate when notified by a special app that they may have come into contact with someone who has tested positive for Covid-19.

Others big names such as restaurant chains KFC, Nando's and McDonald's have all complained of similar problems in recent weeks.

- 'Reaping what was sown' -

David Henig, trade expert at London-based think-tank the European Centre for International Political Economy, said that supply chain strains were being seen across the world due to the fallout from the coronavirus pandemic.

However, "the UK is particularly badly affected due to the additional effects of a hard Brexit," Henig told AFP.

"Recalling that Wetherspoon was an enthusiastic backer of such a hard Brexit, they would seem to be reaping what was sown, and reminding other businesses to carefully analyse the impacts of the policies they promote."

Streeter at Hargreaves Lansdown pointed out that many lorry drivers were furloughed at the start of the health crisis, and a significant number of those from Europe went back to their home countries and had not returned.

In addition, drivers "are not on the approved list of skilled workers eligible for a special visa post-Brexit, so recruiting from Europe is difficult," the expert said.

According to recent estimates, the UK currently faces a shortage of about 100,000 lorry drivers.

That has prompted the industry to call on the government to classify foreign lorry drivers as skilled workers to allow more on the roads.

The Road Haulage Association has also urged the use of short-term visas to address the driver shortage.

Florian Luecker, a lecturer in supply chain management at Bayes Business School, said that the product shortages at Wetherspoon "highlights the vulnerability of the beer supply chain towards external disruptions" in general, given its dependence on just-in-time delivery and focus on cost-efficiency.

But "hopefully, supply chains will soon stabilise in post-Brexit and post-Covid times," he said.

Alex Veitch, general manager of industry body Logistics UK, argued that Covid-19 played a major part in exacerbating what was already a "chronic" shortfall.

"It's really to do with Covid to a very large extent, and Brexit to a lesser extent, added to the long-term chronic problem of not enough people joining the sector," Veitch said.

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