Grocers are facing availability issues and depleted shelves across fresh and ambient products as a shortage of HGV drivers continues.

Retail Week understands that both Sainsbury’s and the Co-op are among the worst affected, although the issue is becoming increasingly widespread across grocery and other retail categories. 

One grocery source said: “The main impact has been on availability. Suppliers not being able to get products to retailers quickly enough, which means retailers haven’t been able to get those products out to stores quickly enough. 

“It means that, across the industry, availability levels aren’t quite where they’d like them to be. That’s across both fresh and ambient products.” 

Association of Convenience Stores chief executive James Lowman says the problems run right through the wholesale and supply chain. 

“Our members are reporting having deliveries cancelled, deliveries rearranged at the last minute from wholesalers and late deliveries from suppliers.

“We’re seeing a lot of retailers reporting a lot of issues now, so it’s getting quite serious.” 

A spokeswoman for the Road Haulage Association (RHA) said the HGV driver shortage was down to a combination of Brexit red tape and Covid-19. 

“We’re missing around 60,000 drivers who have left the country because of Brexit in the last year or so,” she said. “And we’ve lost about 30,000 HGV accreditation tests because of coronavirus.”

RHA chief executive Richard Burnett said the driver shortage had hit “catastrophic proportions” and called on the government to act. 

”The post-Covid upturn in the economy is increasing demand across supply chains and the reopening of ‘non-essential’ retail outlets and parts of the hospitality sector is making the situation even worse.

“The pandemic also resulted in the loss of about 12 months of driver training and testing,” said Burnett.

“The long-term ineffectiveness of apprenticeships for lorry drivers and the general hostility from authorities and government is also unhelpful for recruiting and retaining drivers.”

The grocery source said the issue could be exacerbated further as the UK moves into the summer picking season: “You might see the industry hit by the perfect storm this summer with Brexit and the lack of seasonal workers, where you’ve got the issue of a lack of produce-pickers and drivers.”

British Retail Consortium director of food and sustainability Andrew Opie said: “Retailers are aware of a fall in HGV driver numbers, resulting in minor disruption to some supply chains. Supermarkets are working closely with their suppliers to ensure that consumers still have access to the same great selection of goods. Government must rapidly increase the number of HGV driving tests taking place while also looking for a longer term solution to this issue.”

The driver shortage isn’t just affecting food availability. It has also seen Morrisons cancel some ad hoc wholesale agreements with independent partners and led to increased food waste, according to Tesco.