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UK alcohol firms renew dry Christmas warning after no update on HGV crisis

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Alcoholic drinks companies have issued fresh warnings that the Christmas supply of wine, spirits and beer could be disrupted, after the government refused to provide an update on efforts to resolve the shortage of HGV drivers.

In an exchange in the Commons, the trade minister Ranil Jayawardena said he was “not going to provide a running commentary on numbers”, after being asked how many of 5,000 temporary visas earmarked for non-UK drivers had been issued.

The shadow trade minister Bill Esterson described Jayawardena’s refusal to provide an update as “extraordinary” and said the government was in danger of “cancelling Christmas celebrations”.

The Labour MP cited a letter last week to the transport secretary, Grant Shapps, in which 48 firms including Pernod Ricard, Moët Hennessy and the Wine Society said rising costs and supply chain “chaos” had increased the risk that supermarkets run dry and festive deliveries arrive late.

Drinks companies told the Guardian the situation was leading to extra costs and causing delays.

The wine and spirits supplier Kingsland Drinks, which counts the large supermarket chains among its clients, fills about 185m bottles of wine every year, about one in eight drunk in the UK.

Its managing director, Ed Baker, said the driver shortage was slowing down the company’s supply chain just as it was preparing for the busy Christmas period.

“At this time of year our business trades 2.5m-3m litres of wine a week, most of which comes in bulk containers into UK ports and travels by rail to a rail hub near our Manchester site or to the port in Liverpool,” he said.

“HGV drivers then transport the containers of liquid wine to our factory and are used to take the finished products to our customers, including major supermarkets. We, along with others across the wine and spirit industry, are experiencing hold-ups along the way.”

Baker said the nationwide logjam in the supply chain had led to high demand for container spaces at the rail hubs.

“We would normally expect to have 80 to 100 tank spaces but at the moment we can be down at 10 to 20,” he said. “This is limiting the amount of liquid getting to our plant and comes on top of the HGV driver shortages doing the deliveries. The driver surcharges will drive up costs and if products are turning up late it could lead to some festive drinks not making it on to supermarket shelves for Christmas.”

Sam McMeekin, the founder of the Gipsy Hill brewery in south-east London, said the driver shortage was adding to his costs just as the business faced a hit from fears about the Omicron variant of Covid-19, which was making some people stay away from pubs, particularly in the city centre because of increase in home working.

“We’ve finally managed to hire our own HGV driver, internalising that cost to hopefully save on the soaring cost of outsourcing it,” he said. “As a result the only impacts on us are ongoing super-high lead times for everything and lack of any flexibility in the market.”

However the UK’s largest wine merchant, Majestic, insisted last week that “our shelves will remain full”.

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