Gas prices, CO2, food shortages: how serious are the UK’s supply chain issues?

The Government is understandably keen to play down any sense of panic around the compound issues of spiralling gas prices and supply chain problems - but in doing so they risk their words coming back to bite them (again)

Politicians see their job in times of crisis as finding solutions, but more importantly to reassure us that everything’s going to be OK.

So it’s no surprise that the Downing Street line of messaging on the so-called ‘winter of discontent’ we could be facing is to fix a smile and insist it’s nothing to fret about.

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No need to spook those all-important financial markets, after all.

So this morning we had the environment secretary George Eustice declaring confidently that “Christmas is safe”, before he added a clarification that didn’t sound 100% confident: “There are challenges in the food supply chain, I’m not denying that.”

And Boris Johnson, the reassurer-in-chief, told reporters during his US trip that “Christmas is on”, calling the situation a “short-term problem” caused mainly by the world “waking up from Covid”.

(Remember last Christmas, when he said it would be “inhuman” to cancel Christmas, before cancelling Christmas bubbles a few days later?)

Back on the food shortages, on Monday, Iceland boss Richard Walker took a rather different line to the PM.

“This is no longer about whether or not Christmas will be okay,” he said. “It’s about keeping the wheels turning and the lights on so we can actually get to Christmas.

“This could become a problem over the coming days and weeks, so this is this is not an issue that’s months away.”

In the Government’s defence, they have stepped in to keep the two “critical” plants that produce carbon dioxide reopen, albeit by chucking “many millions” of pounds of taxpayers’ cash at the US company CF Industries.

Cue some cautious optimism from the food industry.

Ian Wright (not the football pundit, but the chief executive of the Food and Drink Federation) said today: “I think it’s a temporary solution but it’s a welcome one, and means there won’t be many noticeable shortages on the shelves, although there are already some because of staff shortages.”

There are clearly deep-rooted issues with the supply chain which have been exacerbated by Brexit, staff availability and Covid.

Add a shortage of CO2 and what we’re starting to see as consumers is the result: empty shelves and unavailable items online.

Whether it will be a short-term blip or a longer term, structural crisis comparable to the 1970s, depends on who you listen to.

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