Dairy giant Arla, which supplies milk to all major UK supermarkets, has said a lorry driver shortage has forced it to cut back on its deliveries.
UK managing director Ash Amirahmadi said the firm normally supplied 2,400 stores a day, but had been experiencing driver shortages since early April.
“Last Saturday, there were 600 stores that we couldn’t deliver milk to,” he told the BBC.
He warned of a summer of disruption and urged the government to act.
“It’s very worrying for customers when they go into shops and find that the shelves are empty,” he said.
“Our assessment is that we’re in a driver shortage crisis and therefore we’re asking for the industry and government to work together to recognise we’re in a crisis and actually address the issue.”
Mr Amirahmadi said the government could help the industry by accelerating the programme of driving tests for new HGV drivers, as well as by issuing temporary visas for the road haulage industry, so that more European drivers could be allowed into the country.
The Road Haulage Association believes there is currently a shortfall of about 100,000 lorry drivers.
Earlier this month, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps announced a temporary extension of lorry drivers’ working hours, from nine to 10 hours a day.
However, the RHA said the relaxation was a “sticking plaster”.
Mr Amirahmadi said: “Since the beginning of April, we have experienced driver shortages. That has increased to such a level now that we are not able to deliver milk to every store that we’d like to.
“Unfortunately at the moment, there’s about 10% of the stores every day that we can’t deliver to. At the weekend, it’s worse.”
Mr Amirahmadi said the problem was a structural issue that needed a structural solution.
He said it would be “tough and challenging” to get through the summer.
There are indications that the shortage of drivers is pushing up pay rates, with Tesco offering lorry drivers a £1,000 joining bonus.
Arla, through third-party hauliers, had “significantly increased” pay, including paying new drivers a £2,000 bonus if they were prepared to work weekends, Mr Amirahmadi said.
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But with summer holidays approaching, the problem was likely to get worse, he said.
“By how much, we cannot fully predict, but I think that’s why we really need to take bold action in time for the summer,” he said.
“We’re trying to avoid a summer of disruption.”
The driver shortage has combined with the so-called “pingdemic” to exacerbate the problem, as large numbers of workers in key sectors have been forced to stay at home after being alerted by the NHS Covid app.
But Arla was suffering more from the lack of drivers than from Covid alerts, Mr Amirahmadi said.
“Self-isolation doesn’t seem to be impacting us as much, because we’re a very mechanised, automated business,” he added.
“The food is there in the factories, it’s just about getting it to the shops. So that’s our key problem.”
A government spokesperson said: “We’re working with industry and have already taken action on HGV driver shortages, including ramping up vocational test capacity, and funding apprenticeships.
“We have also announced a temporary relaxation of drivers’ hours rules. This will allow HGV drivers to make slightly longer journeys, but must only be used where necessary and must not compromise driver safety, with further measures to be announced shortly.
“Most of the solutions, however, are likely to be driven by industry, with progress already being made in testing and hiring, and a big push towards improving pay, working conditions and diversity.”
In July the government announced a package of measures designed to help the industry.