Rishi Sunak says he has 'no magic wand' to save Christmas

Rishi Sunak says he has ‘no magic wand’ to save Christmas amid supply chain crisis as food bosses warn British turkeys may be off the menu and worried shoppers order frozen birds three months ahead of big day

  • Meat organisations claim turkeys are likely to be from the continent this year due to labour shortages in UK
  • Iceland says frozen turkey sales are up by 400% compared to 2020 and it has increased its orders by 20%
  • British Meat Processors Association says some festive foods such as pigs in blankets may not be available 

The Government today confirmed that product shortages this Christmas are unavoidable, with meat organisations claiming turkeys are likely to be from the continent this year due to labour shortages in Britain.

Iceland reported sales of frozen turkeys are up by more than 400 per cent compared to this time last year, while industry experts believe some festive foods such as pigs in blankets may not be available for the big day.

As beleaguered petrol stations continued to be hit by the fuel crisis, Chancellor Rishi Sunak said he cannot ‘wave a magic wand’ to make global supply chain issues disappear as Britain faces product shortages.

He also conceded that there will be shortages this Christmas but insisted the Government is trying to ‘mitigate’ the problem, saying: ‘It’s reasonable that people expect us to do what we can. 

‘But we can’t wave a magic wand and make global supply chain challenges disappear overnight. With regards to butchers, my understanding is that those are indeed on the shortage occupation list that we already have.’ 

It came as pig farmers protested outside the Conservative Party conference today, arguing a lack of skilled butchers could lead to the ’emotional and financial disaster’ of tens of thousands of UK pigs being killed for waste. 

Chancellor Rishi Sunak heads to the second day of the annual Conservative Party Conference in Manchester this morning

Pig farmers protest outside the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester this morning amid shortages of a butchers

Mr Sunak also told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘We’re seeing supply disruption, not just here but in lots of different places, and there are things we can try and mitigate, and we are. But we can’t wave a magic wand.

‘There’s nothing I can do about the decision by a country in Asia to shut down a port because of a coronavirus outbreak. But be assured we are doing everything that is in our control to try and mitigate some of these challenges.’

Farmers protest at butcher shortage amid fears of pigs being killed ‘for waste’ 

Pig farmers have protested outside the Conservative Party conference, arguing a lack of skilled butchers could lead to the ’emotional and financial disaster’ of tens of thousands of UK pigs being killed for waste.

Farmers have warned that a shortage of butchers could see up to 120,000 animals slaughtered on farms and then incinerated because they cannot go to the abattoir and they have nowhere left to house them.

Pig farmers were protesting outside the Tory conference in Manchester on Monday morning, calling for a temporary visa scheme to bring more butchers into the UK.

Pig farmers protesting outside the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester this morning

They held up placards saying: ‘No butchers. No bacon. No British pig industry.’

Pig vet Duncan Berkshire, who was taking part in the pig farmers’ protest, told the PA news agency: ‘We are here to ask the Government to give us some short-term Covid recovery visas of 12 to 18 months, which would allow that bottleneck to be unleashed and for us to not end up having to kill pigs on farm, which would be an absolute travesty when we want to get good, high welfare, quality-assured pork to UK consumers.’

Vicky Scott, a pig farmer based in East Yorkshire, said the protesting pig farmers had come from all across the country.

She told PA: ‘There is a huge crisis going on in UK pig farms at the moment.’

Ms Scott said: ‘For about the last 11 weeks we have been reduced in our contracted pigs going in to slaughter by 25%, so there is an estimated 150,000 extra pigs on farm. And obviously that’s growing every day.’

She added: ‘Right now the blame has got to be with the Government because they don’t appear to understand the problem, and the problem is massive and really real. And we’re being forced into making the decision as to whether to kill pigs on farm. Obviously if we have to kill pigs on farm they can’t go into the food chain. So it’s just a huge waste. It’s immoral really that we are going to be forced into this position.’

Pig farmers protesting at the conference in Manchester today

Ms Scott said farmers do not raise pigs ‘to waste a lot of resources and energy and time to just end up killing our pigs and put them into landfill. It’s disgusting. And it is that bad. And they don’t seem to understand. And all we need is some more butchers into the processing plants.’

She said: ‘None of this is the farmers’ doing. We pay our staff really, really well. We’ve got good staff. And they do a really good job. It’s not our fault that there are not enough butchers in the processing plant. And we are the ones that are going to get left with this emotional and financial disaster.’

Ms Scott added: ‘The retailers are just filling their shelves with foreign stuff. It’s criminal that we are going to be forced to make that decision and kill healthy animals for waste.’

Despite recent media reporting on the issue, the Prime Minister appeared to be unaware of the problem when he was questioned on BBC One’s The Andrew Marr Show on Sunday.

Boris Johnson’s initial response was to tell the presenter: ‘I hate to break it to you but I am afraid our food processing industry does involve the killing of a lot of animals. I think your viewers need to understand that.’

When it was pointed out to him the whole problem was that they could not be sold for food and they would have to be disposed of on the farms, he accused the presenter of ‘trying to obfuscate’.

Mr Johnson added: ‘The great hecatomb of pigs that you describe has not yet taken place, let’s see what happens.’

His comments came as Nick Allen, chief executive of the British Meat Processors Association, has said Christmas turkeys are likely to be from the continent this year due to labour shortages in Britain following Brexit.

He told Sky News: ‘We’re not saying that there’s not going to be food on the table at Christmas, but we’re struggling to put the party food together – the pigs in blankets, the netting of gammons.

‘But I suspect that food can be imported and probably the turkeys might not be British turkeys but they may end up being French, or even turkeys from further afield.

‘We’re not saying there’s going to be desperate shortages, but there certainly won’t be the choices available for British food, that’s for certain.’

Mr Allen added that he was ‘surprised’ that Prime Minister Boris Johnson appeared to be unaware of problems facing pig farmers when questioned on the BBC’s The Andrew Marr Show.

Speaking on Sky News, Mr Allen told how tens of thousands of butchers are needed and the training period for each is around 18 months.

He said: ‘We’ve been talking to Government on a daily basis about the problems we’ve been having, so I’m somewhat surprised that he (Mr Johnson) wasn’t aware of the situation.

‘We’re short of skilled-up butchers and these aren’t people you can just pull off the street and put in the process. It takes time to train these people and we’re about 10,000 to 15,000 people short.

‘It takes 18 months to train a butcher and get them up and running, so we’re looking for some help here to manage the transition, not just stopping everything overnight.

‘We’ve had a long-term reliance on non-UK labour and it’s going to take a long time to adjust.’

Mr Allen has also criticised the Government for continuing to allow the import of food from countries which have access to non-UK labour while British firms are struggling to cope with the loss of this same labour.

He told Sky News that there is a ‘massive problem’ with farmers being unable to process ‘somewhere around 100,000’ pigs in the country which may have to be culled.

When asked whether low wages were part of the problem, he said: ‘What’s interesting is the (Government is) happy to ban the import of non-UK labour in this country, but they continue to actually aid and abet imported food from countries that have got access to this labour.

‘At the end of the day someone has to pay for these increased wages and they somewhat get in the way of that by aiding and abetting imported food.’

When asked whether animals may have to be culled, he said: ‘We know there’s a large number of pigs, somewhere around 100,000 are struggling to get processed at the moment and we know our plants are working at full capacity as best they can with the labour they’ve got.

‘So, there is a massive problem out there with farmers … It’s difficult to see at the moment how we’re going to get ourselves out of this difficult circumstance.’

Meanwhile Iceland revealed that people across the UK have already begun filling up on festive frozen food, with sales for frozen turkey up by 409 per cent compared to this time last year.

The retailer added that the word ‘Christmas’ reached over 17,000 searches across its website in the past week alone, and it has increased its order of frozen turkeys by 20 per cent this year in light of demand.  

Richard Harrow, chief executive of the British Frozen Food Federation, said: ‘Frozen food sales grew rapidly during the pandemic and we are now seeing evidence of a growing awareness of frozen food’s quality, convenience and ability to reduce food waste.’

Also today, Dr Zoe Davies, chief executive of the National Pig Association, said she was ‘disgusted’ by Mr Johnson’s lack of awareness about the plight of pig farmers when he was asked about the issue on the BBC.

When asked whether thousands of pigs could be culled as a result of a shortage of EU workers on Times Radio, Dr Davies said: ‘It will happen, there’s no two ways about it.

‘I have been sent photographs by members all weekend of pigs that are now overstocked, they absolutely have to go to slaughter, if they don’t, we have to find alternatives for them and one of those alternatives, sadly, is having to cull those animals on farm and those carcasses will go in the bin.

‘Quite frankly, I’m very disgusted by the Prime Minister’s attitude yesterday.’

She said wages for meat processing workers have ‘risen exponentially’ this year but the industry is still struggling to recruit UK nationals after the loss of Eastern European workers in the wake of Brexit.

Dr Davies told Times Radio: ‘We’ve been talking to the Government about labour issues for many years.

‘Agriculture and abattoir work isn’t something that’s particularly attractive to a lot of people, so this is part of the reason we’ve become increasingly reliant on Eastern European workers, because UK nationals don’t want the work.

‘Yes, that’s partly down to the wages, because people don’t want to do what they feel is menial work in processing plants, but those wages have risen exponentially in the last few months, so wages should no longer be a barrier.’

Iceland has reported sales for frozen turkeys are up by more than 400 per cent compared to this time last year

Iceland said it has increased its order of frozen turkeys by 20 per cent this year in light of demand

She added: ‘The processors now tell us that they are paying way over the £25,000 threshold that was part of the issue regarding the working visas. Butchers can earn anything up to £35,000 a year, which is a pretty good salary for a processing worker.

Military tanker drivers take to the roads to ease Britain’s fuel crisis 

Army tanker drivers are taking to the roads for the first time to deliver supplies to beleaguered petrol stations hit by the fuel crisis.

Around 200 military personnel – half of them drivers – are being deployed in Operation Escalin, despite ministers insisting the situation at the pumps is easing.

The troops – who have been on standby since the start of last week – will initially be concentrated in London and the South East, where the worst shortages remain.

A tanker leaves the Esso Purfleet Fuels Depot in Essex today

They include members of 3rd Logistic Support Regiment who have been training with the petroleum industry logistics company Hoyers in Thurrock in Essex.

Ministers have faced criticism for not sending them out earlier after a wave of panic-buying – prompted by reports that supplies to filling stations were being hit – led to chaos on the forecourts.

The Government has however being deploying its reserve tanker fleet – driven by civilian drivers – since last week in an effort to bolster supplies.

A Government spokesman said: ‘We are working closely with industry to help increase fuel stocks and there are signs of improvement in average forecourt stocks across the UK with demand continuing to stabilise.

‘Stocks in London and the South of England have been recovering at slightly slower rates than other parts of the UK, so we have begun deploying military personnel to boost supply in these areas.

‘More than half of those who have completed training to make fuel deliveries are being deployed to terminals serving London and the South-East of England, demonstrating that the sector is allocating drivers to areas most affected in this first phase from Monday.’

Operation Escalin was originally drawn up in preparation for possible fuel shortages following Britain’s final withdrawal from the EU single market at the start of the year.

The Petrol Retailers Association (PRA) – representing independent retailers – has welcomed the deployment of the military, although it has suggested it will only have limited impact.

PRA chairman Brian Madderson said while the crisis was ‘virtually over’ in Scotland, the North and the Midlands, more than one-in-five filling stations in London and the South East were out of fuel.

Boris Johnson, attending the opening day of the Tory Party conference in Manchester on Sunday, expressed confidence the crisis was ‘abating’ and said the military were being deployed as a ‘precaution’.

The Prime Minister however repeatedly refused to rule out shortages in the wider economy in the run up to Christmas.

As well as an estimated shortfall of 100,000 HGV drivers, businesses from meat producers to retail, have warned of empty shelves if the shortages are not addressed.

Mr Johnson acknowledged the country was going through a ‘period of adjustment’ following Brexit, which has cut off the supply of labour from the EU.

He insisted that he was not prepared to resolve the situation by pulling ‘the big lever marked uncontrolled immigration’ to let in more foreign workers.

He said firms should ensure their employees were ‘decently paid’ if they wanted to get more staff.

‘Most of those workers will be earning £14 an hour-plus now – it’s way over the minimum wage, as it should be because it’s a skilled role. But even so they are struggling to get the numbers of people from this country to want to work in those places.’

She also said that, beyond wage increases, automation of jobs in meat processing plants and promoting butchery to the younger generation are the main ways the industry is trying to attract much-needed workers.

Asked how the industry could attract UK nationals, Dr Davies told Times Radio: ‘An increase in automation in those plants – and that’s something that abattoirs are already doing, taking out some of those highly repetitive jobs and putting in effectively automated processes to enable that to happen without people.

‘But you still need people. Butchery is a highly skilled trade, so it’s about trying to promote that to the younger generation, trying to move away from the fact that these are processing plants, to bring back some of the craft into the job.

‘Another way is apprenticeships, which is something these companies have already been doing, trying to encourage young people into a lot of these roles.

‘But there’s no getting away from the fact that there are some repetitive roles – packing, basically looking after the machines that are running in those plants – you’ve still got to have people in there doing those roles, you can’t fully automate.’

And she said food prices will rise as a result of increased wages for people working in the meat processing industry.

Dr Davies told Times Radio: ‘There is an inevitability that food prices will rise as a result of this increased wage – that has to happen.

‘So the retailers themselves have a huge responsibility to support that, rather than doing what they’re currently doing, which is effectively looking at EU pork which is a lot cheaper and shipping that in instead, and not prioritising British pork or British jobs.’

Dr Davies added that Christmas turkeys and pigs in blankets this year are likely to be mostly imported from EU countries.

‘Many consumers have been permanently converted to buying more frozen products by the long shelf-life, value for money and variety of food on offer. This combined with current concerns about food supply mean many people will be opting for frozen this Christmas.’

It comes amid concerns around fresh meat supply shortages, with the British Poultry Council revealing that its members have been forced to cut Christmas turkey production down by 20 per cent. 

Also today, the head of the National Farmers’ Union has described food shortages as a ‘welfare disaster’ as the union calls for a Covid recovery visa to allow firms to recruit from outside the UK.

Minette Batters, president of the NFU, said she has spoken to some angry pig farmers who are protesting outside the Conservative Party conference in Manchester following labour shortages across the supply chain.

She told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme: ‘They are protesting outside and they are angry, distraught and extremely upset.

‘They have been calling for this, we have been calling for an emergency scheme, a Covid recovery scheme, to be put in place to avoid this very scenario.’

She added: ‘I am desperate to get the facts of this story to the Prime Minister and that is what the pig farmers outside want to get across, the story of this disaster.

‘We have never had a cull of healthy livestock in this country and this cannot be a first. I can’t stress it enough, this cannot happen, there are vets outside as well. It is a welfare disaster.

‘Farmers produce food for the nation and I’m very proud to do it, we have very high standards of pork production in this country and we have to solve this issue.’

She also said there is ‘plenty of food out there’ and work needs to be done to get it on the shelves.

Ms Batters told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme: ‘There’s been a whole-chain approach from the NFU, the British retail consortium to the Hauliers Association and many others.

‘We’ve got to look at this as a whole supply chain approach, there’s plenty of food out there, we’ve got to get it on the shelves.’

Addressing people’s concerns over the union’s calls for help from foreign workers, she said: ‘I’ve continually reiterated it, we are part of national living wage, we are highly regulated in the food and farming sector, so it is no different to any other part of the economy, but we do have the most affordable food in Europe, that’s been an enormous success story for consumers that are facing rising costs on every level.

The British Meat Processors Association said Christmas turkeys ‘may end up being French’ this year and are likely to be from the continent due to labour shortages in Britain following Brexit. File picture: Turkeys at a poultry farm in Sarthe, France

A shopper walks past nearly empty shelves of pre-cooked meat products in a Sainsbury’s store in North London last Friday

‘They want to continue to have affordable food, we want to make sure, as Britain’s farmers, that they have that food, we need to get into the shelves. This is short term, things will change, but in the run-up to Christmas, we need to resolve this crisis.’

Rishi’s £500m to boost jobseekers: Funding to help a million back into work as £70billion furlough scheme ends 

Rishi Sunak will today unveil a £500million funding package to help get furloughed workers back into jobs.

During the pandemic, the £70billion furlough scheme is credited with saving millions of jobs.

But around one million workers were still on the programme when it finally closed last week, sparking fears of a surge in unemployment.

In his keynote speech to the Conservative Party conference today, the Chancellor will announce funding to ‘prioritise’ job support for workers coming off furlough.

The £500million extension to the Government’s plan for jobs will also provide tailored packages for others hit by the pandemic, including the young and workers aged over 50.

Ms Batters added that Mr Johnson did not look to be ‘as well briefed as perhaps he should have been’ on the issue, adding it was her job to get the facts across to him.

She also outlined her concerns over the new system of foreign payments as a result of the UK leaving the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy.

Ms Batters told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme: ‘What we’re seeing going on with the pig sector at the moment, the economic shocks felt by the closure of CF fertilisers that produces 60 per cent of the ammonium nitrate fertiliser in this country, it’s unprecedented.

‘I have never seen the economic reality coming back to farms like it is now, with massively rising input costs for farmers, for growers, the labour shortage.

‘This new scheme – I absolutely supported it from the beginning, the NFU laid down the gauntlet for achieving net zero by 2014 – we’ve got one chance to get it right.

‘The NFU is only saying, actually, with Scotland waiting until 2024, Wales waiting until 2024, we must continue to work on this scheme, get it right, deal with the fairness in the supply chain. Farmers don’t want to run farms with support, that is very clear to me.’

However, the chairman of Morrisons has said logistical challenges facing supermarkets in the run-up to Christmas have been ‘slightly overblown’.

Asked if he has any concerns about the impact of supply pressures on Christmas trading, Andy Higginson told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘No, we aren’t worried, it tends to come every year.

‘And everyone appears to be ready for it so I think it will be a good Christmas for people – they will want to treat themselves as they usually do.

‘There are logistical issues at the moment and those are well publicised and slightly overblown. Supply chains in the UK are incredibly efficient and I am sure we will be able to deliver a great Christmas for customers as we go through.’

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