A measure to help alleviate the HGV driver shortage crisis by extending the hours they can legally work is facing a fierce backlash from the haulage sector.
Transport minister Baroness Vere announced the relaxation of the safety rule, via her Twitter account, following repeated warnings from the Road Haulage Association (RHA) this summer of a severe threat to the distribution of goods.
The sector body has even supported calls for the Army to be brought in to help battle the consequences of 100,000 driver vacancies – blamed on several factors including many not returning from abroad because of the COVID-19 crisis, Brexit, and pandemic disruption to the qualification process.
The minister wrote: “We’re temporarily extending drivers’ hours rules from Mon 12 July to allow HGV drivers to make slightly longer journeys where necessary, as we’re aware of a current shortage of drivers.
“Driver safety must not be compromised & operators must notify DfT (Department for Transport) if this relaxation is used.”
But RHA chief executive Richard Burnett, who has held talks with various ministers in recent weeks to appeal for government aid, responded: “We oppose wholesale extensions to drivers’ hours as we believe they can be counter-productive by making the job less attractive.
“Loading more hours on to drivers that are already exhausted is not the answer – the problem needs more than just a sticking plaster.
“Ministers should be mindful that road safety is the reason HGV drivers’ hours are limited. Relaxing them should only be used as a last resort to resolve short-term issues that cannot be addressed in other ways.”
A 12-point plan it has put to government includes temporary visas to allow overseas drivers but firms have been encouraged to recruit domestically in the wake of post-Brexit immigration rules.
The HGV driver shortage is threatening to add to the surge in inflation on a number of fronts as shortages of raw materials, witnessed globally, complicate supply chains.
The RHA said “substantial” increases in pay for drivers – a result of the haulier shortage – were likely to be passed on and be reflected in consumer prices.
Transport secretary Grant Shapps has not ruled out additional help for the sector, on top of increasing the number of driving tests.
Tesco, the UK’s largest retailer, is among firms to have admitted exposure to the HGV driver shortage while even children’s sweets have not been spared disruption.
Germany-based Haribo warned last week that the crisis was causing difficulties in shipments to the UK.
The Unite union said it was waiting to see more detail on the government’s plans.
Its national officer for road transport, Adrian Jones, said: “Unite will be advising its members to not place themselves in danger and that, if they are too tired to drive safely, they have a legal right to refuse to do so.
“Unite will fully support those who make that decision legally and industrially.”
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