Shortage problem: What's the UK running low on and why?

·6 min read
Bronze turkeys
Turkeys could be hard to find this Christmas

Shortages are the only thing we don't seem to be running out of in the UK right now.

If you can manage to buy a car, then you might have trouble filling it with petrol. Drive it to the shops and you might find you can't get all the groceries you want.

Christmas is coming, but will we be able to get toys, turkeys and trees for the festive season?

Here's a list of some of the worst shortages and the reasons for them.

Cars, new and used

Let's start with one that has an easy explanation. Global vehicle production has been hit by a shortage of microchips.

Now that every new car is practically a computer on wheels, semiconductor chips are essential to keeping those production lines running.

But during the coronavirus pandemic, carmakers shut down, so microchip manufacturers diverted the chips that would normally go into those cars to the consumer electronics market.

With fewer new cars for sale, sought-after second-hand motors have shot up in price. And car industry figures say the supply crisis is unlikely to end soon.

Earlier this month, Ola Källenius, the head of Germany's Daimler and Mercedes-Benz, told the BBC that the chip shortage could continue into 2022 and even 2023.


The government is keen to stress that there is no actual shortage of petrol in the UK. There is plenty in the refineries, it says - there are just problems with getting it to the petrol stations.

That is true. But if you are sitting in a queue of cars waiting to fill up your tank, you may not appreciate the distinction.

No Fuel sign at petrol station
No Fuel sign at petrol station

In the latest development, the government has put the army on standby to help ease the problem, which is caused by a shortage of heavy goods drivers to make deliveries.

The coronavirus pandemic, Brexit and tax changes have all contributed to a lack of qualified drivers. Industry bodies estimate there is a shortfall of about 100,000.

At the same time, a rise in the cost of wholesale fuel has pushed pump prices to an eight-year high.

The RAC says this adds up to a "pretty bleak picture for drivers".


The UK's shortage of lorry drivers means that supermarkets are not getting as many deliveries as they used to, so when they sell out of a particular product, it now takes longer for them to fill that gap on the shelf.

Fresh produce such as milk is particularly badly affected.

Dairy giant Arla, which supplies milk to all major UK supermarkets, has been forced to cut back on its deliveries by the lack of lorry drivers.

The firm has been experiencing driver shortages since early April and there is no end in sight to the problem.

It normally delivers to 2,400 stores a day, but now cannot deliver to all of them every day.

However, it says it is working closely with customers to make sure supplies get through.

At the same time, at least one dairy farmer has said he was told to dump his milk after the lorry driver shortage meant it could not be collected.


Among other grocery items sometimes missing from supermarket shelves right now, shoppers are finding they can't always buy their favourite cuts of meat.

Since the UK's departure from the European Union, the food sector, like many others, has been struggling to cope with a loss of workers after many eastern Europeans went home.

Empty meat shelves
Empty meat shelves

A number of food industry bodies have warned of panic-buying this Christmas unless action is taken to address those labour shortages.

They include the British Meat Processors Association (BMPA), which says it has traditionally found it difficult to attract British workers.

A BMPA spokesperson told the BBC that labour shortages were "perennial", but added: "Since Brexit and following the pandemic, the problem has become much worse.

"Industries are now competing with each other for a dwindling pool of workers and the current labour crisis has seen workers in strategically important sectors like food manufacture and social care being enticed away by other sectors that can afford to hike wages 20% or 30%.

"To restore some balance in the labour market, every employer, including the public sector, may have to follow suit, but it will mean consumer price inflation."

The poultry trade is also hard hit by the labour shortage, with the British Poultry Council estimating there are nearly 7,000 vacancies across the sector.

Farmers are warning of a Christmas turkey shortage because visa changes to allow labour recruitment from abroad have come too late.

Toys and trees

In the run-up to Christmas, there is always a mad rush by parents to secure the latest must-have toy for their offspring.

But this year, supplies are set to be even scarcer.

As with the car industry, the problems in this case are global. About 70% of the world's toys are made in China and the cost of getting them to the UK has gone up hugely.

Containers are scarce in Asia, because of the effects of the pandemic on international supply chains, so shipping charges are now 10 times higher.

And if you can find containers, shipping times have doubled, meaning there is less time available to get toys into shops before the festive season.

The Toy Retailers Association has said shoppers may struggle to find what they want, while John Lewis says it is chartering a fleet of extra ships to make sure it has Christmas stock on time.

And the "perfect storm" of labour shortages, shipping costs and post-Brexit labour regulations could also lead to a scarcity of Christmas trees this year.

According to the British Christmas Tree Growers Association, between eight and 10 million real trees are sold in the UK each year.

But between one million and three million of those are imported from elsewhere in Europe.

Now those supplies could be set for the chop, pushing up prices for home-grown trees.

Mark Rofe, who owns online retailer, said UK tree growers were seeing an increase in demand for their product.

This was coming "especially from clients who would usually import their trees from Europe, but are keen to avoid any red tape that could increase costs or cause delays for what is of course a highly seasonal and time sensitive business".

Timber and cement

Building materials have been running short in the UK, leaving DIY projects in doubt and putting construction firms under pressure.

Timber prices in particular have been soaring, pushed up by shipping issues, supply chain problems and post-Brexit import rules.

Meanwhile, supplies of cement, plasterboard and insulation are being rationed by manufacturers, according to builders' merchant Jewson.

Despite the supply squeeze, the UK construction industry is literally building back after the worst of the pandemic, but the shortages are leading to massive delays and significant price rises.

One builder told the BBC that a home extension previously costing £20,000 currently costs about £26,000.

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