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UK supply chain facing drastic threats from severe driver shortage, pingdemic isolation and Brexit

Data Blocks
Data Blocks

As the UK economy gradually stabilises from Covid-19, a critical nationwide shortage of 100,000 drivers is impacting the supply chain.

With this, the Road Haulage Association (RHA) has called on the UK Government to introduce a new range of measures to help attract, recruit and train new drivers, as a matter of urgency.


Speaking candidly, Richard Burnett, RHA Chief Executive, commented however that this is not a new problem – that recruitment into the lorry driver profession has been a longstanding problem before the pandemic, though it has absolutely been exacerbated by the upturn in the economy recently with “increasing demand across supply chains and the reopening of nonessential retail outlets and parts of the hospitality sector, making the situation even worse.”

“The long-term ineffectiveness of apprenticeships for lorry drivers and the general hostility from authorities and Government is also unhelpful for recruiting and retaining drivers,” Burnett continued. “While we welcome the increase in HGV apprenticeship funding to £7,000, this barely scratches the surface of the problem… we need Government to act and address the driver shortage for the industry and the drivers.”


Driver Hours Relaxation

If this situation in itself wasn’t enough of a struggle for the industry, it was recently announced by the Department for Transport (DfT) that a temporary relaxation of the retained EU drivers’ hours rules in England, Scotland and Wales will take place until August 8.

This means that HGV drivers can increase their daily driving limits from nine to 10 hours or change weekly rest patterns on Monday, though the DfT confirmed that this relaxation reflects the “exceptional circumstances” stemming from a shortage of HGV drivers causing “acute supply chain pressures”.

Head of Road Freight Regulation Policy at Logistics UK, James Firth, made his stance clear, commenting that he felt the Government were ignoring the industry and forcing already hard-pressed lorry drivers to carry an additional “burden.”

“Throughout the pandemic, the UK’s professional drivers have kept our shops, homes and businesses supplied with everything needed to keep the economy going, but the current workforce cannot be expected to fill the gaps created by the current skills shortage,” he said. “The road freight industry vehemently opposed the extension of these vital road safety laws, yet the Government has ignored the will of those who will be most affected by the changes.”

Echoing Burnett, Firth said that “the logistics sector has been experiencing a significant shortage of drivers for a number of years, but this situation has been exacerbated by factors including the Covid-19 pandemic and Brexit, which has seen many EU workers return to their home countries.” Yet another factor which seems to have been overlooked by the Government in many cases.

Now more than ever, the industry needs a clear, long-term solution to the recruitment of drivers, with Logistics UK suggesting to include temporary visas for EU workers to cover the gaps while new recruits can be trained, and interest free loans for those wishing to enter the market – not a “stop-gap measure” that will heap more pressure on existing workers.

Firth added: “The relaxation of drivers hours should only be used in an emergency situation, when a foreseeable end date can be identified – or is the Government suggesting that the current shortage of drivers will be resolved by 8 August?”


HGV Driver Tests

According to Logistics UK and The Logistics Report Summary 2021, there were 43% less tests conducted in 2020 than 2019, with 35% of these conducted in the first quarter prior to the pandemic.

However, during the first lockdown period of April through June, only 631 tests took place. By comparison, in 2019, 18,625 tests were conducted over the same time.

Founder and CEO of Diamond Logistics, Kate Lester, labelled the DfT’s decision to extend drivers' hours as ‘stupid’. “Drivers are already overworked and exhausted,” she said. “The answer is not to work the key workers into the ground – it’s to recruit and retain new ones.

“You cannot just ask drivers to work more. Accidents will happen. This has as much forward thinking as smart motorways to stop congestion. The next time a lorry driver falls asleep at the wheel and careers into oncoming traffic, point your finger at the short sighted numpties that came up with this suggestion.”


A threatening challenge

In a new report from Shell and Frost and Sullivan, the shortage in HGV drivers is identified as one of the top challenges for the commercial fleet industry.

The whitepaper, Navigating Roadblocks in the Long-Haul Road Freight Industry, sheds light on the status of the industry as the world recovers from the pandemic, describing a “daily balancing act” for fleet managers as they try to keep supply chains running smoothly.

It reports the value of the global road freight industry stood at £2.2trillion in 2020, with estimates suggesting a decline of between 15% and 25%, dependent on the market, as a result of Covid-19.

However, as the economy improves, it is forecasting freight revenues will grow by an average of 4.3% annually from 2020 to 2025.

Logistics UK further support this, stating that the logistics sector contributes £127 billion to the UK economy and involves 205,000-plus businesses.

Chief Executive, David Wells, says the industry has shown “exceptional resilience… before the pandemic, the sector was already operating in a changing context: driver shortages; new rules because of the exit from the EU; and adapting freight to deliver a cleaner, greener future. Covid-19 has not meant these factors have gone away, but it has accelerated them and made responding to them more complex.”

“The performance of our economy is dependent on sufficient and efficient logistics. But this is not possible without skilled staff… driver vacancies and the shortage of skills to support the wider industry are the biggest challenge we currently face.”


Pingdemic and Brexit

Naturally however, the significance of the driver shortage is not going to go away overnight. It is an ongoing threat which continues to cause major disruption across the economy, but it can not be blamed on just one thing.

There is now an estimated backlog of up to 30,000 HGV driver tests which were postponed during the UK lockdowns, but now that “freedom day” has passed, we have the “pingdemic” causing additional stress on those who find themselves isolating yet again, not to mention days of work lost and salaries lost unnecessarily.

Yet, vacancies still continue to grow in the sector to replace lorry drivers who have left the country, with the RHA estimating that the shortage of drivers has risen from 60,000 to 100,000 this year partly due to 15,000 non-UK drivers going elsewhere because of Brexit.


Showing support

The RHA has devised a 12-point plan for the Government to address the driver shortage, with an overhaul of apprenticeships and a continued prioritisation of driving tests.

As well as this, it also wants HGV drivers to be put on to the Government’s Skilled Worker Shortage Occupation List along with a seasonal visa scheme for qualified drivers, and it is also proposing a seasonal worker or periodic visa scheme, with qualified lorry drivers with Driver CPC and a licence that is valid to drive a lorry (C or C+E) eligible.

The trade association said it could be modelled on the Temporary Worker – Seasonal Worker visa (T5) scheme currently limited to farm workers. However, with the EU also suffering driver shortages, the RHA acknowledges it will not be long-term, but more “significant and quick”.

In other cases, businesses are taking this into their own hands – offering incentives, bonuses and training to attract and retain drivers.

Tesco, Britain's biggest supermarket chain, has been offering to pay £1,000 to HGV drivers joining before 30 September, and it is understood that other retailers offer similar schemes too, with Morrisons saying they are working on schemes to train staff to become lorry drivers.

It has also been reported that some businesses offer free driver training, which otherwise would be a personal cost for those entering the industry.

Whilst this is certainly one way to open the recruitment doors, it could also leave smaller operators that make up the majority of the haulage industry, struggling to compete.


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