'Gaps on the shelves within a week': former supermarket chief's stark no-deal Brexit warning

PUBLISHED: 11:04 08 August 2019 | UPDATED: 11:10 08 August 2019

A former Sainsbury's chief has warned of 'significant gaps' on supermarket shelves within a week of a no-deal Brexit. Picture shows the results of panic buying after a water shortage in Twickenham. Picture: David Mirzoeff/PA Wire/PA Images

A former Sainsbury's chief has warned of 'significant gaps' on supermarket shelves within a week of a no-deal Brexit. Picture shows the results of panic buying after a water shortage in Twickenham. Picture: David Mirzoeff/PA Wire/PA Images

PA Wire/PA Images

A former top supermarket boss has said there will be 'significant' gaps on the supermarket shelves within a week of a no-deal Brexit.

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Justin King, former CEO of Sainsbury's and food director at Marks and Spencer, said that the border at Dover is unlikely to function smoothly enough after a no-deal Brexit to prevent major disruption at supermarkets.

"The government's expectation is that something like 50% of lorries will not pass smoothly through the border," he told BBC's Newsnight.

"Supermarkets will do whatever they can to cope with the disruption," he added. "But let's be clear - there's about 10 days of [fresh] food in the UK in total.

"The kind of disruption that the government is talking about today ... will lead to gaps on the shelves within a week in the UK. Significant gaps. Because something between 30 and 40% of our produce at that time of the year is coming from the European Union."

As shortages appear, the risk of panic buying will increase, he warned.

Challenged by host Emma Barnett, he said he is not stockpiling himself because it would be "a terrible thing to do", and that he hoped the government would listen to calls from the Food and Drink Federation (FDF) to waive competition law.

Food chiefs call for competition law waiver amid no-deal Brexit supply warnings

Supermarkets are currently prevented by the Competition and Markets Authority from coordinating due to the risk of price-fixing, but want some flexibility so they can adapt the supply chain in the event of a no-deal Brexit.

King insisted that he is not simply invoking disaster as part of 'Project Fear', pointing out that a no-deal Brexit had not, despite Dominic Raab's recent insistences, been discussed during the referendum. "We are now discussing a Brexit which looks nothing like a Brexit we have ever discussed before," he said.

He is one of several expert voices warning that the government must take further action to prevent the harshest effects of no-deal.

BBC's Newsnight reported that up to 45,000 cows in Northern Ireland may have to be culled due to tariffs on milk at the Irish border. Meanwhile, food expert prof Tim Lang suggested that the government may have to drop its own public health advice on eating fresh fruit and vegetables because the disruption might cause a severe lack of availability.

Food supply strain of a no-deal Brexit could be 'unprecedented in peacetime', warns prof

"Of course the industry will innovate in the longer term to solve the problem," said King.

But in the shorter term, the government's planned £2.1 billion of no-deal preparations spending would not fully address the fundamental supply chain issues. "You can't 'cope' if the product isn't in the UK," he said.

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