The driver shortage is hitting crisis level in the UK, with demand increasing across supply chains as the country recovers from Covid-19.
That’s according to the Road Haulage Association (RHA), which has called on Government to urgently introduce a range of measures to help recruit and train drivers.
RHA chief executive Richard Burnett says what has been a longstanding problem has been exacerbated by the upturn in the economy.
“Increasing demand across supply chains and the reopening of nonessential retail outlets and parts of the hospitality sector is making the situation even worse,” he said.
The pandemic has resulted in the loss of about 12 months of driver training and testing, while online retail averaged 28.1% of retail sales in 2020, according to Logistics UK, up from 19.2% in 2019.
Burnett continued: “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.
“We need Government to act and address the driver shortage for the industry and the drivers.
“While we welcome the increase in HGV apprenticeship funding to £7,000, this barely scratches the surface of the problem.”
DRIVERS' HOURS RULES
Burnett comments came before yesterday’s announcement that the Department for Transport (DfT) was extending a temporary relaxation of the retained EU drivers’ hours rules in England, Scotland and Wales until August 8.
HGV drivers can increase their daily driving limits from nine to 10 hours or change weekly rest patterns on Monday.
The DfT said that the relaxation of the rules reflects the “exceptional circumstances” stemming from a shortage of heavy goods vehicle (HGV) drivers causing “acute supply chain pressures”.
James Firth, head of road freight regulation policy at Logistics UK, accused the Government of ignoring the industry in deciding to the road safety measure, with hard-pressed HGV drivers carrying the “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.
“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.”
Logistics UK says that the industry needs a longer-term solution to the recruitment of drivers – including 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 TESTING TIMES
Comparing calendar years, the pass rate for HGV drivers has remained fairly consistent, averaging 57.7% from 2015-2019, according to Logistics UK.
The Logistics Report Summary 2021 suggests it is only higher in 2020 because of the very high average pass rate from April to June, averaging 79.4% and skewing the overall average higher, when testing rates collapsed.
Compared with 2019, there were 43% less tests conducted in 2020, with 35% of these conducted in the first quarter (January to March), when fewer than 15,000 tests were carried out, prior to the advent of 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 a similar period.
Kate Lester, founder and CEO of Diamond Logistics, 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.”
Peter Golding, managing director, FleetCheck, is also concerned about the impact on safety. “The current rules were introduced to tackle the problem of driver fatigue leading to serious accidents and there is already a 10 hour exemption allowed, so we would hope this relaxation would only be applied in the most extreme circumstances where delivery failures might lead to critical situations," he said.
"We certainly don’t believe it is a good idea to extend driver hours to make non-essential deliveries, for example."
He added: "We plan to work with our software user base and the tacho companies with which we interface to ensure that, where the relaxation is applied, it is done so in as structured and responsible a fashion as possible."
The shortage in HGV drivers is identified as one of the top challenges for the commercial fleet industry in a new report from Shell and Frost and Sullivan.
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.
To keep both local and global supply chains running smoothly, it says that fleet managers are tasked with performing a “daily balancing act”.
Frost and Sullivan reports the value of the global road freight industry stood at $3.1 trillion (£2.2tn) 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 said the logistics sector contributes £127 billion to the UK economy and involves 205,000-plus businesses.
David Wells, chief executive of Logistics UK, says the industry has shown “exceptional resilience” throughout the pandemic.
He said: “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.”
GOVERNMENT SUPPORT NEEDED
Rob Wright, executive director at Scala, a provider of management services for the supply chain and logistics sector, said ministers must provide the support the industry has been demanding for so long.
“The Government must provide monetary grants to support the industry, amend immigration policy to place drivers on the shortage occupations list and significantly increase the availability of HGV driver tests after the blockage created by the coronavirus lockdowns,” he said.
“The industry’s demands for support must be heard and actioned, or this crisis could get much worse.”
The RHA has devised a 12-point plan for Government to address the driver shortage, with an overhaul of apprenticeships and a continued prioritisation of driving tests.
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.
It is 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 be no long-term panacea, but its contribution could be “significant and quick”.
Wright said: “Nearly 10% of all UK workers work in logistics, a growing sector which is vitally important to the UK economy, as was particularly the case during the past year’s enforced lockdowns.
“This shortage is an early test of the Government post-Brexit immigration policies, which prioritise high-skilled immigration as there are significant doubts that domestic recruitment could fill the gaps in the short term.”