Independent MLA Claire Sugden has called on Northern Ireland's Executive to act to ensure services, food and goods supply lines are maintained despite staff shortages.

Staff shortages in hospitality have meant some bars and restaurants in the region have been unable to open full-time, while a shortage of HGV drivers has put pressure on the agri-food industry.

“Despite the relaxation of many of the Covid rules, some businesses are unable to properly bounce back because of the shortage of staff,” said Sugden, who sits on Stormont’s Economy Committee.

“The lack of HGV drivers is leading to empty shelves in shops and supermarkets and many restaurants, bars and cafes are struggling to get enough staff to open full-time.

“Brexit and the pandemic have been blamed for these staff shortages, but it’s not enough to find the reasons for the problem – solutions must be found as well.

“Free hospitality courses for managers and technical specialists announced by further education colleges in April were a good place to start, but staffing needs to be addressed at a broader and more junior level as well.

“There have been calls from within the industry for a hospitality academy to be set up in order to support the sector moving forward. Ties between industry and Executive departments – in particular, the Department for the Economy – need to be retained and strengthened in order that these gaps are filled and supply is meeting demand.”

Driver and staff shortages

In the run-up to Christmas, delivery of food and goods would be particularly stretched, given the lack of HGV drivers, Sugden said.

The Road Haulage Association (RHA) estimates a shortfall of around 100,000 drivers in the UK.

“We have already heard from supermarket bosses that shortages will hit the shops in the run-up to Christmas,” she continued.

“This will of course hit smaller, independent businesses as well – those unable to withstand industry pressures as well as larger chains.

“People are in the process of retraining as lorry drivers, but backlogs at testing centres mean people are waiting months for a slot. This needs to change so that these vital roles can be filled as soon as possible by those ready for their test.

“Trainees need to be supported – both financially, with fees, and with getting them fully trained as soon as they can be. It is encouraging that some councils in Northern Ireland are setting up logistics training academies – this could also prove a successful way of ensuring we have enough drivers to meet the demand.”