School meals could face disruption and caterers have begun stockpiling as a driver shortage fuelled by Brexit and Covid puts deliveries at risk, a local council has warned.
Sheffield City Council said cooks would be given two days’ “emergency stand-by menu items” from this week in case the national driver shortage threatens frozen and dry goods supplies.
The stockpiled ingredients include dried food like pasta and fish fingers.
Catering firm Taylor Shaw, which has a contract to supply schools in the city, has seen some deliveries from wholesaler Bidfood arrive late and others not at all in recent weeks, according to a council letter seen by Schools Week.
The letter to schools said it had not yet led to service disruption and most issues had affected London and south-west England. Meat, poultry, fresh fruit and veg, provided by other suppliers, are also “not affected at the moment”.
But the council’s update and apology in advance has been issued “in case there is a problem in the next few weeks”. Schools have been told there could be some “amendments” to menus, with purchasing staff having to look at alternative supply routes.
“This is clearly not what anyone would want during the last weeks of the school year,” added the letter from a member of the council’s school food team.
The letter points to nationwide problems affecting the distribution and haulage sector, including Brexit resulting in “many European drivers leaving the UK”.
Covid has also seen many drivers who previously supplied catering firms move into other jobs, including delivering for online retail, according to officials.
Tim Adams, director of corporate sales at Bidfood, told Schools Week it and other wholesale distributors had urged the government to step in urgently before Covid restrictions ease further, increasing the strain.
“We’re asking the government to relax drivers’ hours, as well as add drivers to the list of skilled workers to enable recruitment of drivers from the EU talent pool,” he said.
The Road Haulage Association has also warned long-standing recruitment challenges are “hitting crisis level”.
It said earlier this month lorry driving should be added to the shortage occupation list or a new seasonal worker scheme under post-Brexit immigration rules. EU drivers were previously able to move to the UK freely, but now require visas that are hard to obtain.
Another demand from industry chiefs is for the government to prioritise a backlog of HGV driving licence tests that built up with tests suspended in lockdown. Adams said it was “imperative” as the issue was stopping thousands of potential drivers becoming available.
Warnings over nationwide delivery disruption have been growing in recent weeks. The CEO of Britain’s biggest retailer Tesco said it had been “working really hard” to address HGV driver shortages earlier this month, according to Reuters.
Councillor Jayne Dunn, Sheffield council’s elected member for education, children and families said: “We are aware of the challenges Taylor Shaw are facing to some areas of its supply chain.
“The issues have not yet directly affected our schools, but as a precautionary measure, we have been working hard to put contingency plans in place to mitigate the impact any delays may have.”
Taylor Shaw and the government have also been approached for comment.