Families desperate for a boost after the pandemic obliterated last year’s celebrations had been warned a shortage of butchers might mean the traditional roast was off the menu. But a swift take-up of emergency visas to recruit thousands of overseas workers to save Christmas has already resulted in a far more optimistic outlook than ministers feared.
And an expected easing of the HGV driver crisis has also boosted hopes as the UK enters its busiest time of the year for trade.
Yesterday Whitehall chiefs from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) declared they were “confident” the supply chain had stabilised as they were quizzed by MPs on the Public Accounts Committee.
David Kennedy, Defra’s directorgeneral for food, farming and biodiversity, declared uptake of the poultry worker visas had been “pretty good”.
His department was also “feeling very positive” that all the butchers’ visas would be used.
The Government has introduced 800 temporary visas for foreign butchers and 5,500 visas for poultry workers after labour shortages sparked fears that animals could not be processed in time for Christmas.
Mr Kennedy said: “I think we’re confident, and if you listened last week to the chief executive of Bernard Matthews, he was saying there is enough capacity now in terms of turkeys for Christmas.
“More generally there is an HGV issue which is affecting the whole of the food system. We monitor that closely. The current supply situation is reasonably stable. It’s not at the ideal level but it’s not in a bad place at all.”
He added that the first poultry workers were expected to arrive in the UK at the beginning of November, with the pig butchers arriving a fortnight later.
But the problems in the pig industry would take six months to sort out “given what is in the system”.
Industry figures have previously warned that the backlog of animals ready for slaughter could result in as many as 150,000 pigs being needlessly destroyed.
On Tuesday, Zoe Davies of the National Pig Association said it would be early December before the sector’s butchers were “up to speed”.
Mike Sheldon, pork sector board chairman of the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board, said the situation “should start to ease little by little” thanks to the new butchers, but warned there could be more problems around Christmas and New Year’s Eve due to staff taking time off.
But while the situation around food has improved, shoppers are still being urged to shop early.
Shipping problems will have a particular impact on toys, bikes and electrical items, according to analysts.
There are already reports of parents being left in tears after being told stock of the most eagerly sought after toys had run dry.
Le Toy Van in Surrey sells toys made in the Far East and supplies to Harrods and Selfridges, but owner Steve Le Van has already sold out of dolls houses and wooden train sets despite ordering double the usual amount.
He revealed: “I’ve had people already on the phone in tears wanting to buy a dolls house.”
Paul Schaffer, managing director of Lincolnshirebased Plum Play, said: “It’s going to be a very hard job for parents managing expectations or perhaps suggesting their children adjust those Christmas lists a little.” The nation’s retail supply-chain crisis has been fuelled by the loss of more than 50,000 HGV drivers over the past four years.
In the year to June, there were an estimated 268,000 truckers working in the UK, down 53,000, or 17 per cent, from the peak of 321,000 in 2017.
Brexit and the pandemic have been blamed for the labour shortages. Many workers have returned to their home countries across Europe.