Written by: Hannah Williams
At the start of 2020, the UK had over 300,000 HGV drivers occupying its roads. Now, just over a year later, that number has shrunk to 230,000 and there is an estimated shortage of more than 100,000 drivers, according to a survey conducted by the Road Haulage Association (RHA).
As a result, a wide range of companies from Wetherspoons to McDonalds have experienced shortages of well sought-after products whether that be beer or milkshakes. Although the shortages of such items themselves impact consumers negatively, a continued shortage may actually lead to more devastating results such as price increases on many products. This worry has been highlighted by Morrisons.
WHY HAS THIS HAPPENED?
One reason for the shortage is Brexit. Due to new rules and regulations, a lot of the driving workforce who were EU nationals returned home thus forming the start of the shortage. Pre-Covid, the estimated shortage of drivers was around 60,000, most of whom left the UK and returned to the EU. Before Brexit, when the UK was part of the single market, it was much easier for drivers to cross borders and travel through the UK and Europe. However now, the additional paperwork required at borders has resulted in delays, and for the majority of drivers who are paid by the mile and not by the hour this drastically increases costs.
Another cause of the shortage is fairly obvious- the pandemic. Once Covid had hit the UK and travel restrictions increased, along with the shutting down of the UK economy, it meant that many European drivers went home. Around 14,000 drivers from the EU left in June 2020 according to the RHA. A year later, only 600 returned which equates to just 4%.
Not only has the pandemic affected European drivers but it has actually prevented domestic drivers from becoming qualified HGV operators. There are currently large delays for those waiting to take their HGV tests due to closures of most testing sites during the pandemic. Around 40,000 tests were cancelled across the last year due to Covid closures. The Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency does not expect to get through this backlog until Spring 2022 suggests Logistics UK.
Alternatively, some drivers argue that the shortage actually stems from the UK’s failure to invest sufficiently into its own workforce. Instead of prioritising domestic driver development, it is contested that the government relied too much on foreign drivers to keep costs down. A reader of the Express continues to say that the UK government ‘failed to invest in British people and relied on cheap Europeans, under the excuse that the UK wanted ‘cheap’ food’. Now that the UK is forced to train domestic drivers, it is evident that costs are rising.
ARE THERE ANY SOLUTIONS?
One solution to deal with the shortages short-term was proposed by the Managing Director of Hughes Driver Training, Carl Hughes. He suggested that visa rules should be relaxed for a short period in order to allow time for domestic drivers to complete training and the DVSA to catch up with testing.
However, despite the negative impact that the extra red tape relating to border control has had on the HGV driving industry, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps still denies that immigration is the solution, arguing that ‘we do have to stand on our own two feet as the UK’.
Companies have also been trying to find solutions to this shortage by providing added benefits for those who join the HGV driving industry. Tesco’s, for example, is offering drivers a £1,000 joining bonus and Waitrose has gone even further by giving its existing drivers a pay rise of £2 per hour in addition to giving newly qualified drivers a £1,000 ‘welcome payment’.
Those who have retired or are about to retire from the industry have also been offered increased salaries ranging from £40,000 to £50,000 due to a poor driver retention rate. This however has been said to be unsustainable with average industry margins. If such promises of increased salaries are kept, it may then lead to higher inflation rates resulting in much higher prices for consumers.
It seems that multiple factors have caused these shortages and not just one event. However, what is not as clear is how the UK can solve this issue without causing too much damage. The above suggestions are all ways in which the problem could be eased but none appear to provide the ultimate fix. Until a fully formed solution is found, the UK public can only hope that the supply of certain products do not deplete entirely and that delays in deliveries do not result in price rises.
The best course of action may be a combination of solutions for example, providing short term visas to European drivers whilst focusing on a high frequency of recruitment and training across the country.