Government plan a ‘good start’, but unlikely to solve driver crisis immediately, industry says

A lorry driver arrives at Dover port displaying his official negative Covid-19 test letter on January 22, 2021 in Dover, England. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

The plans announced by the government on Tuesday ‘acknowledges industry concerns’ but is unlikely to solve the HGV driver crisis until 2022, industry groups have warned.

The plans, unveiled in a letter to the logistics industry by Transport Secretary Grant Shapps, aim to attract more truck drivers and simplify training in a bid to address a chronic shortage in the haulage industry which companies have warned could damage supply chains and lead to some food shortages.

However, business group Logistics UK said the plan does not deliver on the critical promises made to the industry over three years ago on the need to increase safe and secure parking facilities for drivers across the nation’s road network.

“The plans revealed by government only go part of the way to addressing the crucial problem areas that the industry has been talking with government about for years,” said Elizabeth de Jong, policy director at Logistics UK.

“After all the incredibly hard work to keep the country stocked with all that it needed throughout the pandemic, it is dispiriting to see that the safety and security of our workforce in the course of doing their jobs is still not being prioritised.”

The announcement included a commitment by ministers to work with industry leaders to attract new drivers, simplify training and encourage people to remain in the sector.  But, de Jong noted that the plan needs concrete targets and timelines to help the industry recruit more drivers.

“It is good to see the urgent focus placed by government on increased HGV driver testing with DVSA (Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency), as this is currently the biggest blocker to new entrants entering the workforce,” she said, “but without targets and a workable timeline, this is simply a statement of intent.”

“We need to know how soon the backlog of 25,000 test passes can be cleared more swiftly by the DVSA, as we estimate at current rates this will take 27 weeks (ie until the end of January 2022).  We welcome proposals for reform of the vocational driving test process to increase test capacity– but it will take time to make the necessary changes to legislation, and for it to be implemented on the ground, before the full benefit can be felt.”

The Road Haulage Association (RHA) has concurred, saying that the crisis is “so great it needs immediate short-term measures” allowing the industry to work towards the longer-term fixes.

“This is a step in the right direction long-term, but it doesn’t address the critical short-term issues we’re facing,” Richard Burnett, RHA chief executive, said. “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 RHA reiterated its demand of including HGV drivers on the Home Office Shortage Occupation List.

The government has earlier announced a relaxation to the drivers’ hours rules to address the crisis, and the Department for Transport is currently considering an extension to this.

The Covid-19 pandemic, which prompted many foreign workers to return home during lockdown, and new immigration controls after Brexit has led to staff shortages in logistics and other sectors such as construction and hospitality. Food and logistics groups have warned that a shortage of more than 100,000 drivers could damage supply chains and lead to some food shortages.