“It’ll all be over by Christmas.”
Given this phrase first voiced the misplaced hope that a seemingly minor military skirmish across the Channel would have been done and dusted by the end of 1914, you’d think that politicians would be hardwired not to repeat it.
Yet, that’s essentially what Boris Johnson said about the Covid pandemic in July last year. He kept it up right until he had to cancel festivities at the very last minute.
Plans were scrapped. Loved ones were kept apart. Many spent the festive period alone. The sick and elderly who worried it might be their last Christmas had to be consoled. Purported hosts were left with too much food and supposed guests had to scramble to produce something resembling a Christmas meal at short notice. And the pain was all the more acute for having been preceded by hope.
Not to be deterred, last week a Downing Street spokesperson claimed that the current supermarket shortages will also be over by Christmas. Time to panic, then?
Certainly, when the Prime Minister yesterday revealed his coronavirus blueprint for autumn and winter, setting out a ‘Plan B’ of measures to protect the NHS, and the implied possibility of a ‘Plan C’ full lockdown, it was possible to hear the alarm bells of déjà vu ringing in the background. As if on cue, Sir Patrick Vallance also warned the country may have to “go hard and go early” to avoid a winter Covid surge, raising the prospect of further restrictions.
However, there are reasons to be hopeful. In Johnson’s words, the country is in an “incomparably” better place going into this winter than last because of the “wall of immunity” which has been built up in the population. We may be giving thanks to the scientists this Christmas.
You might need to start planning now. This week, Michael Gove was tasked with fixing Britain’s food supply chain problems, amid fears of December food shortages. Add on top the fact that surging inflation is making some items more expensive by the day, and it’s probably not a bad idea to suppress the usual grinching about Christmas creep beginning before the leaves turn and start getting your ducks – or turkeys – in a row.
With that in mind, here’s what you need to start thinking about today...
The geese (and turkeys) are getting fat. But there are likely to be fewer of them this year – on British farms at least. Nine million turkeys are eaten over a typical Christmas. However, the British Poultry Council (BPC) is worried there won’t be enough workers to slaughter, dress, pack and dispatch the centrepiece for your Yuletide meal.
Richard Griffiths of the BPC says farmers are growing fewer birds as a consequence and he estimates Christmas turkey production has been cut by 20 per cent. This could result in a shortage of roughly 1.8 million. The BPC has called on the Government to extend the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme to the poultry meat sector.
“If we cannot meet demand then it is likely that, in a bitter twist, we will see turkeys from EU countries on our shelves this Christmas,” says Griffiths. Many shoppers prefer to buy British, especially when it comes to meat. But this year, some might have to consider a French hen or three.
To do today: Order your bird early, and be prepared to buy foreign fowl
Pigs in blankets
There are even bigger issues with other types of meat. Nick Allen of the British Meat Processors Association says his members are suffering labour shortages of up to 15 per cent, the critical tipping point at which they have to slow down production. Companies would normally start working on fiddly products such as pigs in blankets and gammon roasts in July. Allen says that there are “already gaps”.
“Everywhere you look, costs are going up in the meat industry’s supply chain – labour, haulage, fuel, even repairs to buildings,” he says. “Our members are already having conversations with their customers about what they can and can’t produce. There will be a reduced offering. The obvious consequence of short supply is that prices will go up and that’s already feeding through.”
There are likely to be similar issues with other prepared foods. Ian Wright of the Food and Drink Federation says manufacturers are experiencing serious labour shortages caused by a multitude of structural factors beyond those caused by Covid or the end of the Brexit transition period. “If fast action is not taken, the impacts which we are already seeing will worsen – including supply chain disruption, on-shelf shortages and potential closures in the hospitality sector,” says Wright. “This is even more important in the context of autumn being a key time for suppliers to ensure capacity is available in advance of Christmas demand ramping up.”
To do today: The UK typically consumes around 100 million packs of pigs in blankets each Christmas, according to Allen. So, if you do see any on the shelves between now and December, snaffle them immediately and pop them in the freezer. Alternatively, you might want to consider buying the streaky bacon and cocktail bangers separately and get wrapping. The same goes for other foods you may usually buy ready made.
There may also be issues with some vegetables, especially potatoes. This is a result of flooding in Europe, which has damaged crops. Experts warn that there will be shortages of frozen chips, which will spread to spuds.
To do today: As viewers of Clarkson’s Farm will know, potatoes can last a while if stored correctly. If you have a basement, use it. When kept in a cool, dark place (colder than room temperature but warmer than a fridge) uncooked potatoes can last up to two months.
It’s better news here for your Christmas tipple(s): fingers crossed, there shouldn’t be any problem with booze. Alcohol lasts a while and drinks retailers like Majestic have got their orders in early in order to stockpile ahead of the rush. “We are planning ahead by bringing in an extra £10 million of stock now – ahead of the crucial festive period,” says a spokesman. “We are confident this will mean, at Majestic at least, our shelves will remain full “
To do today: Pour yourself a drink. There should be enough beer and wine to go around. Father Christmas will get his brandy. And Granny can fall asleep in front of the telly after getting sozzled on sherry.
It is probably a good idea to get the kids or grandkids to write their lists and send them off to the North Pole ASAP. Gary Grant, who runs The Entertainer, which operates more than 170 toy shops in the UK, recently told the Financial Times that he hadn’t had to deal with supply conditions as bad as now in 40 years of selling toys.
Again the issues are with prices of raw materials spiking, higher shipping costs, and factories trying to clear backlogs of orders. The ship blocking the Suez canal earlier this year created bottlenecks which have still not been resolved. Air freight is reduced because fewer passengers are flying.
If the kids want something that is made in China – bicycles are particularly badly affected – then you definitely want to be getting your hands on it sooner rather than later. Electronics may be a particular issue because of a worldwide shortage of computer chips. Few of these issues are likely to be resolved until after Chinese New Year in February and the Boxing Day sales are therefore likely to disappoint.
Booksellers have ordered early and are stockpiling. However, many books are published in the lead up to Christmas in order to create a buzz and retailers are worried that if something becomes a surprise hit, they’ll struggle to get hold of enough copies.
To do today: Get down to the shops or order online early. Retailers have already started stocking up for Christmas.