By Isabella Jain
London, United Kingdom
Following the recent chaos at petrol station forecourts and concerns over empty supermarket shelves, the U.K. government has proposed policies to solve the HGV (Heavy Goods Vehicles) driver crisis. There are widespread fears that the national, acute shortage of drivers could significantly disrupt the country in the lead up to Christmas. How did this problem arise, and most importantly, what is the plan of action of the U.K. government?
‘Logistics UK’, a trade body, informed ministers that the U.K. has a shortage of 90,000 HGV drivers: pre-pandemic, the figure was estimated to exceed 60,000 drivers. According to the Road Haulage Association (RHA), the number is even higher at 100,000. With the consequent disruption of supply chains, the retail and manufacturing industries—heavily dependent on the transportation of goods via heavy goods vehicles—have suffered greatly.
The HGV driver crisis is not unique to Britain. In Poland, there was a shortage of more than 120,000 drivers last year, whilst in Germany, this figure was between 45,000 and 60,000, so why has the U.K. been disproportionately impacted? Brexit has been a popular response to this question. When the U.K. was part of the E.U. single market, there was a large pool of labour and a flexibility for drivers, meaning a near sufficient workforce to meet demand. The enforcement of strict immigration rules means this is no longer the case. Industries, including fruit-picking, have also faced labour shortages due to the post-Brexit conversion in rules, draining them of E.U. workers.
The recognition of other contributing factors to the shortage of drivers is vital; the pandemic and underlying systemic problems serve large roles in the issue. The pandemic has played a crucial part in worsening the situation, instigating a substantial backlog in HGV driver tests. This delay has proved a hindrance, increasing the difficulty to employ new drivers into the field to fill in the gaps. The restriction on travel and the shutdown of parts of the economy, due to COVID-19, meant many European drivers returned home faced with the absence of work. Companies have noticed a meagre number have returned since, an occurrence also attributed to low wages.
Within the industry, issues, including low pay, have been conveniently avoided by policymakers for far too long. HGV drivers tempted by the appealing wages in the rest of Europe have responded by leaving Britain. According to Salary Expert, the average salary for a truck driver in the U.K. is around £30,000 (around $40,800 USD), whereas in Germany, the equivalent job offers 41,000 euros (around $47,400 USD), demonstrating a striking difference.
Until now, the government has been reluctant to address the issues of Brexit on the industry, with Grant Schapps, the Transport Secretary, previously stating, “we do have to stand on our own two feet as the United Kingdom.” Facing increasing pressure, the government has changed its tune with its proposed policies designed to ease the crisis, welcomed by many. To tackle the issue in the long-term and prevent a worsening of the shortage, solutions centre on investing in training U.K. workers. This will ensure labour supply is predominantly domestic rather than foreign. The Department of Education is set to invest up to £10 million, aiming to create “skills boot camps” to instruct a maximum of 3,000 new HGV drivers. Furthermore, the dispatch of 1million letters to all U.K. drivers who hold an HGV driver licence intends to encourage them to get back behind the steering wheel. To get a grip of the current chaos as of now, the government is granting temporary visas, valid until December 24th, for 5,000 foreign HGV drivers. This should result in an easing of strain on the supply chain before the Christmas rush. Still, obstacles remain: the U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has admitted that at present, only 127 drivers from the EU are ready to work under the government’s new visa scheme.
The looming threat of stock shortages and rising prices continues to worry many as the Christmas season approaches. Although the U.K. infrastructure of the HGV driver industry cannot improve overnight, small steps taken by the U.K. government aim to secure the security of supply chains contingent on HGV drivers and prevent a future recurrence of similar events.