We have heard lots over the last few days about the 'crisis' in getting fuel delivered to our UK petrol stations to keep the economy moving after oil firms reported a lack of drivers was causing transport problems from refineries to forecourts, leading some operators to ration supplies and others to close petrol stations. But do we truly understand the severity of the transport 'crisis'? Do we truly recognise this key sector for its efforts to keep the nation supplied? The article below explains in some depth the nature of what's happening in the transport and haulage sector and why.
How serious is the shortage of lorry drivers?
A Road Haulage Association (RHA) survey of its members estimates there is now a shortage of more than 100,000 qualified drivers in the UK. That number includes thousands of drivers from European Union (EU) member states who were previously living and working in the UK.
The government is introducing temporary visas for 5,000 fuel tanker and food lorry drivers to work in the UK in the run-up to Christmas. It has faced calls to do so for several weeks, amid growing concerns about deliveries of food and fuel. The government has resisted those calls until now, with Transport Secretary Grant Shapps previously saying: "We do have to stand on our own two feet as the United Kingdom".
The shortage of HGV drivers is due to a combination of Covid, Brexit and other factors.
Covid is certainly part of the problem. As travel became increasingly restricted last year, and large parts of the economy shut down, many European drivers went home. And haulage companies say very few have returned.
The pandemic also created a large backlog in HGV driver tests, so it's been impossible to get enough new drivers up and running.
The industry warned the prime minister in June that there were 25,000 fewer candidates passing their test in 2020 than in 2019.
What about Brexit?
There are HGV driver shortages across Europe, but in the UK Brexit has made things worse. Many European drivers who went back to their home countries, or decided to work elsewhere, are unable to return. When the UK was part of the EU single market, they used to be able to come and go as they pleased. But new immigration rules mean that is no longer the case.
There is also new bureaucracy, and the decline in the value of the pound against the euro since the Brexit vote has made working in the UK less attractive for EU nationals.
The strain on the freight transport system comes before Britain imposes checks on goods coming in from the EU. They have now been delayed until next year - some in January, others in July. If they prove too intrusive, that could make it even more difficult to encourage European drivers to work in this country. Many drivers are paid by the mile or kilometre rather than by the hour, so delays cost them money.
Tax and conditions
There have also been tax changes making it more expensive for drivers from elsewhere in Europe to work or be employed in the UK.
The reform of the IR35 rules - on how people working off the payroll pay tax - are designed to prevent workers setting up limited companies and paying less tax and National Insurance while working, in effect, as an employee.
What can be done?
Haulage companies say the average age of HGV drivers in the UK is 55, and they want more to be done to attract younger workers. That includes better terms and conditions, better facilities for long distance drivers to use, and a recognition that they are a vital part of the economy.
One consequence of shortages, though, has been that some wages for drivers are already going up.
What is actually being done about shortages?
As well as allowing more foreign workers into the UK from October, Ministry of Defence examiners will be brought in to increase the number of HGV driving tests. There will be free intensive 'boot camps' to train 3,000 people to become HGV drivers, with another 1,000 to be trained through courses funded by the adult education budget.
The government is also writing to nearly one million drivers who hold an HGV licence to encourage them to return to the industry.
It has also slightly relaxed the Drivers' Hours rules, which means drivers will be able to increase their daily driving limit from nine hours to 11 hours twice a week. (A government spokesperson said longer journeys "must only be used where necessary and must not compromise driver safety").
And there is £7,000 per person funding for the Large Goods Vehicle Driver apprenticeship scheme.
Is this enough?
The government moves to support the industry through several measures but the Road Haulage Association (RHA) says they will only bear fruit in a year's time and the need for action is "immediate". RHA chief executive Richard Burnett said of the latest government announcements: "This is a step in the right direction long-term, but it doesn't address the critical short-term issues we're facing. The problem is immediate, and we need to have access to drivers from overseas on short-term visas. The idea to simplify training and speed up testing is welcome; along with encouraging recruitment it will only improve things in a year or two's time."
The issues set out above are an insight into what is currently happening in the haulage sector. It appears that the government are now beginning to listen to the sector and implementing plans to help alleviate the shortgae of drivers but is the government doing enough and doing it quickly enough? This remains to be seen but in the meantime, we must thank and support the haulage sector for the incredible job that they are doing, under such incredible strain, to keep our economy moving.