Driver shortage and the fuel crisis

This article looks at why this crisis developed, what steps the Government has taken to alleviate the problems and whether they will work.

When retail groups and hauliers began warning in July that Christmas shopping could be threatened by a lack of lorry drivers, December seemed far away. Even when McDonald's ran out of milkshakes, Nando's had to close 50 restaurants because of problems sourcing supplies of chicken and Wetherspoons’ beer taps ran dry, people, seemed inclined to shrug and carry on. However, when rumours started that petrol stations were running low on supplies in September, queues immediately started forming on forecourts across the country and social media was soon awash with videos of arguments and brawls as people fought to fill their cars.

“Don’t panic buy”, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said, as cars began queuing round the block. Faced with headlines calling for him to get a grip, and news reports suggesting that the shortage of drivers had been “aggravated by Government policy”, the Prime Minister finally decided to act.

Driver shortage is not a new problem

Although several factors have come together in what has been called an “autumn of adversity”, the lack of HGV drivers which lies at the heart of the shortages mentioned above has not suddenly appeared in recent months. The International Road Transport Union was highlighting the problem in 2019 when it said that the UK haulage sector was losing 50 drivers per day. Already at 59,000 vacancies, that deficit had grown to 76,000 by 2020 and the Road Haulage Association (RHA) now estimates that it is at least 100,000.

The impact of Covid and Brexit

Two factors combined to exacerbate the crisis. The pandemic meant that many EU lorry drivers working in the UK went home to be with their families, and most did not return. It is estimated that this resulted in the loss of at least 15,000 drivers, many of whom were also put off returning to work in this country by the introduction of “IR35” tax changes which stopped a loophole under which they were able to register as self-employed, operating as small limited companies and avoiding some tax and National Insurance payments.

At the same time, the restrictions put in place during repeated lockdowns, and the regular instructions for staff to work from home wherever possible, meant that Government agencies were operating at reduced capacity. This led to a growing backlog in HGV driver tests which made it difficult for new recruits to be brought in to fill the growing gaps. As many as 40,000 tests were cancelled in 2020 alone.

When vaccinations led to an easing of restrictions and the economy began to recover, there was a sudden demand for drivers to deliver the goods that were now needed in shops, pubs and restaurants. This was when the Brexit effect was felt as, unlike in previous years, the industry could not rely on Europe to provide a steady stream of workers. Under the Government’s new immigration rules, HGV drivers were not likely to earn enough to qualify for a visa. Nor would the Government add them to its Shortage Occupations List which takes account of specific skill gaps. It was frequently pointed out that the list includes ballet dancers but not lorry drivers or (also in high demand) butchers.

The cost of training

The Government continued to insist that the solution to the problem was for UK firms to hire, and train, more British drivers. However, while it had cut off the supply from the EU by ending freedom of movement, it had done little to help employers fulfil their side of this equation. Faced with all the difficulties of dealing with, and then trying to recover from, the pandemic, haulage firms pointed out that they had neither the time nor the spare cash to suddenly start producing thousands more drivers. Training to become a truck driver costs at least £4000, and could go as high as £7000, the RHA’s Rod Mackenzie emphasised.

Changes to the law

One of the Government’s early moves to try to alleviate shortages was to temporarily relax the rules on driving hours so that, from 12 July to 3 October, drivers have been able to drive for up to 11 hours a day (compared to the previous legal maximum of 10) and a total of 99 hours a fortnight (previously 90) with rest periods also reduced.

A leading drivers’ union, Unite, recently complained that the Government was planning to extend this relaxation period to allow drivers to continue working longer hours. The union objected to the possibility on health and safety grounds. On 30 September, the Government published legislation relaxing the rules on drivers’ hours for the period 4 to 31 October. This was to address, it explained, the exceptional circumstances arising from cumulative impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic, an acute shortage of goods vehicle drivers and unusual fuel buying patterns.

Additional testing

The Department for Transport (DfT) has now announced plans to create an extra 50,000 lorry tests as soon as possible. The Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency (DVSA) has stressed that this will not change the standard required to drive an HGV, with road safety continuing to be of paramount importance. Under the new proposals learner lorry drivers will be able to take an articulated lorry test without the need to pass a rigid lorry test first.

The Government has also promised to bring in MOD (Ministry of Defence) examiners which would, it said, increase immediate HGV testing capacity “by thousands”. And the Department for Education has said that it will invest £10 million to create new skills bootcamps to train up to 3000 more people to become HGV drivers. The free, short, intensive courses will train drivers to be road ready by gaining a category C or category C&E licence.

Dangerous goods transport

On 29 September, the DfT announced a temporary extension to the agreement concerning the International Carriage of Dangerous Goods by Road (ADR). This allows drivers who hold GB ADR driver training certificates, which are due to expire between 27 September and 31 December 2021, to continue carrying dangerous goods by road within Great Britain until 31 January 2022. In force immediately, details of this extension can be found at GOV.UK.

Returning drivers – the British contingent

Nearly one million letters are being sent to all drivers currently holding an HGV driving licence encouraging them to consider returning to the industry. The letter, also available on GOV.UK, encourages those who have left the profession, including the recently retired, to bring their skills back.

“Many employers are offering training packages, so, even if your Driver CPC has lapsed,” the letter states, “you can be supported in updating this through classroom or online courses.”

Returning drivers – the EU contingent

Having held out for several months against calls from the industry to employ EU drivers, the Government finally gave in as the fuel shortages added to general disquiet about shortages. Recruitment for additional short-term HGV drivers will begin in October, the Prime Minister said, and up to 5000 visas will be valid until Christmas Eve. UK Visas and Immigration (UKVI) is preparing to process the required visa applications, once made, “in a timely manner”.

Can we solve the problem?

The Government hopes that calling on the army to add its tanker drivers to the national pool will help to solve the fuel crisis although the chairman of the Petrol Retailers Association has said that the main thing required is a change in public behaviour. With prices rising at the pump as the pound falls against the dollar and the cost of Brent crude oil continuing to increase, that change will surely come in the near future.

The longer-lasting problem of driver shortages will only be solved, the Government believes, when more drivers are being recruited and trained. Easing the backlog in testing will go some way to alleviate the situation but ultimately the industry needs a steady supply of recruits given that the average age of HGV drivers in the UK is 55. While some people may be encouraged by the reports of firms handing out golden hellos and promising to increase wages, however, it must be remembered that there is a reason why young people have proved unwilling to take this career route in the past, and why 99% of HGV drivers are male: the working conditions are poor.

The prospect of long periods away from home together with a lack of decent and secure parking places around the country, with food and proper hygiene facilities, has regularly been cited as the reason firms are struggling to find new drivers. The European Commission recently invited proposals to access €100 million in its Connecting Europe Facility (CEF) funding to improve the network of safe and secure truck parking areas across the European Union. It remains to be seen whether the UK will follow suit.

Which brings us to the most recent initiative to alleviate the problem, the issuing of EU driver visas. It is perhaps difficult to understand why these are due to expire on Christmas Eve given that many potential recruits will remember last Christmas when thousands of drivers were left stranded by the side of the road near Dover or held in mass lorry parks for several days. It is also becoming apparent that the three months which have been promised could well look more like two by the time the new system is in place.

All in all, journalists have not struggled to find drivers in Poland or Romania who have little intention of returning to the UK for such a short space of time when they can have better working conditions in Spain, Germany or the Netherlands. We may need to expect more initiatives as Christmas gets closer.