Where have all the HGV drivers gone?

The second in our series of articles (first here) looking at the looming supply chain crisis in the UK.

The UK is currently short of HGV drivers. The Road Haulage Association (RHA) spells it out in stark figures. Out of a profession of 600,000 drivers, 100,000 are currently missing. One in six posts is vacant: 17 per cent.

What’s the problem? 

Why have we suddenly run out of drivers? In its admirably concise letter to the Prime Minister, the RHA makes it very clear:

  • Brexit: ten per cent of drivers come from the EU, mainly from Eastern Europe. The uncertainty of Brexit and the future rights of EU citizens to live and work in the UK forced many drivers to return to their country of origin. The vast majority have not returned nor are they expected to.
  • Covid: many foreign HGV drivers returned home during extended periods of lockdown and restricted travel. Again, most have not come back.
  • Test shortage: the near-complete shutdown of vocational driving tests last year meant that only 15,000 drivers completed their training (compared with 40,000 in 2019).
  • Tax avoidance legislation: the introduction of new legislation has had a knock-on effect on low profit margin logistics businesses that has yet to be resolved.

Coupled with the falling numbers of HGV drivers, demand for haulage has soared, fuelled by an increase in e-commerce during the pandemic. Competition for freelancers has become intense. One haulage operator explains

“So, we now have this situation where drivers are simply being rejigged from firm to firm as rates climb, and the actual issue of driver shortages is not being addressed.”


Don’t mention the B word

The RHA is adamant that, in the here and now, the industry needs EU and EEA labour if the already-apparent shortages in the supermarkets are not to worsen. It has asked the government for the introduction of a temporary worker visa for HGV drivers. This would allow UK-registered transport operators to access a workforce that can live and work in the UK more easily and it would encourage those who have left to return.

The government, of course, is unable even to hear this, such is their adherence to their Brexit ideology. Instead, the Department for Transport (DfT) has tinkered with the regulations so that drivers can work longer hours. The RHA has condemned the action, saying:  

“loading more hours on to drivers that are already exhausted is not the answer – the problem needs more than just a sticking plaster.”


Secret talks

Behind closed doors, however, it’s a slightly different matter. It turns out that the DfT has been holding discussions with retail and transport firms about how to ease the crisis. One of the possible solutions said to be under discussion is the introduction of a short-term visa scheme.

The Home Office – always deaf and blind to any suggestion that freedom of movement is a good thing – is denying this: 

“We have no plans to introduce a short-term visa for HGV drivers. Employers should invest in our domestic workforce instead of relying on labour from abroad.”


We will have to wait and see how this tussle between the Home Office and the DfT pans out.

Going forward

The RHA has made recommendations to alleviate the problem over the medium and long term. They are asking the government to work with the industry to help address the broader issues around the skills shortage and recommend that the recently-disbanded Food Resilience Industry Forum (which helped to ensure the nation’s supply integrity throughout the pandemic) be urgently reconvened.

Monday was Freedom Day – the day that almost all restrictions on social contact in England are removed. How will the further opening up of the economy affect an industry already at breaking point?

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