The low-level shortage of HGV drivers that has long troubled logistics professionals and the commercial transport of goods has escalated to crisis. Motorists, fearing that the fuel supply would be affected, exacerbated the situation by panic buying, leading to extensive queues at petrol stations, and many pumps running dry.
The situation had worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic following a mass exodus of drivers from the UK workforce, leaving an estimated shortfall of more than 100,000 qualified drivers in the UK, afflicting businesses of all sizes and leaving food shelves empty across the country.
Why is there a shortage of HGV drivers?
A combination of dwindling pay and conditions (less HGV driver service stations), COVID-19 restrictions, and post-Brexit immigration rules are intensifying a long-term problem with recruitment.
The coronavirus pandemic has led to a large backlog in HGV driver tests, with 40,000 tests cancelled last year, meaning tens of thousands of potential new drivers have been unable to join the industry. Even before the pandemic, the overall estimated HGV shortage was about 60,000 drivers. As travel became progressively more restricted last year, and large parts of the economy shut down, many foreign HGV drivers returned to their home countries, with the vast majority choosing not to return. This has resulted in an estimated 16,000 fewer EU nationals working as HGV drivers.
Not only that, but many European drivers who returned home during the pandemic were unable to return to the UK due to Brexit. The result of the UK leaving the EU single market, as well as new immigration rules, mean that European drivers can no longer come and go as they please. In fact, the RHA claims around 20,000 European drivers have left the UK for ‘Brexit reasons’, as the decline in the value of the pound against the euro has made working in the UK less attractive for EU nationals, who are already uncertain of their future rights to live and work in the UK.
Furthermore, a change to rules on how people working off the payroll pay tax (IR35) has also been blamed for some HGV drivers leaving the industry, as it has become more expensive for European drivers to work or be employed in the UK.
How is the shortage affecting businesses?
There have been numerous headlines bemoaning the impact this shortage is having on logistics across Europe. While the focus has been mainly on food deliveries and petrol shortages, the waste sector is also experiencing difficulties, especially as increasing numbers of drivers are choosing the more ‘glamorous’ jobs.
HGV drivers are essential to Novus Environmental and the waste sector’s operations. From a business point of view, we are experiencing an increasing amount of stress as the situation inevitably leads to a reduction in customer service, which we fear is putting us in a negative light with consumers and jeopardising customers trust in our brand, resulting in the loss of valuable clients. In turn, this is putting extra pressure on our front-line staff whose role it is to deal with complaints or negativity from disappointed customers, not to mention the potential loss of sales and revenue. Our strategy, as we are sure many other affected businesses are adopting, is to remain as honest and proactive as possible, working hard to offer an alternative recovery plan wherever possible.
What else could be affected?
This shortage of HGV drivers is not only putting pressure on UK supply chains across the country is also impacting across the world as we come out of Covid and supply and demand has boomed, catching the world supply chain at sleep, and affecting other areas of everyday life, with reports of less choice on supermarket shelves. As a result, chocolates, loo roll, and toys are all amongst the possible products that could be in short supply this winter, as less deliveries will lead to emptier shelves.
Additionally, surcharges are being applied and drivers’ wages are being increased to meet demand, costs that will be passed onto the end consumer as the price of goods consequently sore up. There is also the potential to see an increase in wastage, as short-life goods are most vulnerable to transport disruption, a problem that adds additional strain to the already critical climate crisis.
What is being done to fix the problem?
According to circumstantial reports, retailers have called on the government to help alleviate pressure, to which the government has responded by introducing various new measures.
Earlier this month, the transport secretary announced that HGV driving tests will be relaxed to allow 50,000 more to be taken in an attempt to help clear the backlog ahead of Christmas. The government is also offering free HGV ‘boot camps’ to train 3,000 people, with another 1,000 to be trained through courses funded by the adult education budget; as well as introducing a £7,000 per person funding for the Large Goods Vehicle Driver apprenticeship scheme. They are also writing to nearly one million drivers who hold a HGV licence to encourage them to return to the industry. In addition, the government has introduced temporary visas for 5,500 fuel tanker and food lorry drivers to allow EU drivers to come back to the UK in the run-up to Christmas.
To further aid pressures on local and national supply chains, the Department of Transport has made a temporary change to the Drivers’ Hours rules, meaning drivers are permitted to increase their daily driving limit from nine hours to 11 hours twice a week. This temporary relaxation has been extended to 31 October 2021, subject to review. However, this scheme has been criticised as compromising safety standards and is not expected to make much difference to the problem. Cabotage as it is categorised, the government has also allowed foreign drivers delivering to UK to be able to pick up extra work whilst in UK and deliver to UK businesses for 14 days (Visa Period) this may undercut British transport companies, but it will help move products as we try to meet the Christmas rush.
The HGV driver shortage is an ongoing global problem and, as we have explored, several recent, compounding factors have transformed it from an enduring nuisance to an acute issue requiring urgent attention, now undeniably affecting businesses like ours.
Our message is – you are not alone, and we are all in this together.