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Supply crisis: Why is there a HGV driver shortage and how bad could the problem get?

Panicked motorists have caused lengthy queues at petrol stations and caused some pumps to run dry – the latest consequence of a shortage of HGV drivers which is causing widespread disruption in the UK.

The government insists the country has “ample fuel stocks” but it has not stopped long lines of cars forming after forecourts were affected by problems getting petrol deliveries.

It comes after the UK’s biggest supermarket chains and restaurants including McDonald’s, KFC and Nando’s, were impacted by the truck driver shortages.

Fuel supply latest: Follow live updates as police urge motorists to ‘be sensible’

Retailers have now warned a solution must be found within days to avoid “significant disruption” in the run-up to Christmas.

So why is there a HGV driver shortage, how big is the problem and what can be done to fix it?

Why is there a shortage of HGV drivers?

The UK needs 100,000 more HGV drivers if it is to meet demand, according to the Road Haulage Association (RHA).

Rod McKenzie, from the organisation, told Sky News it is a “critical situation” and a “cocktail of chaos” had led to the crisis.

So what are the causes?

COVID pandemic

The coronavirus pandemic has seen many foreign HGV drivers return to their home countries and the “vast majority” have not returned, according to the RHA.

There has also been a large backlog in HGV driver tests due to the pandemic, meaning tens of thousands of potential new drivers have been unable to join the industry.

Last year, 40,000 tests were cancelled – with 25,000 fewer candidates passing their test in 2020 than in 2019.

Brexit

The RHA claims around 20,000 European drivers have left the UK for “Brexit reasons”.

It says the “uncertainty of Brexit and future rights to live and work in the UK” forced many drivers to leave the country. However Transport Secretary Grant Shapps claims Brexit has helped provide solutions to the shortages in the haulage sector by allowing an increase in HGV driving tests to be introduced.

He told Sky News: “I’ve seen people point to Brexit as if it is the culprit here. In fact, they are wrong.”

Labour Party chair Anneliese Dodds said the government’s handling of Brexit had been partly to blame for adding extra pressure on the HGV sector.

She told Sky News that manufacturers now faced “additional red tape” and drivers were having to fill in “dozens of pages of paperwork”.

“That is quite a tall order for a HGV driver if they have got to be dealing with all of that, as well as getting goods from one place to another,” she added.

Retiring drivers

The average age of an HGV driver is 55, while less than 1% of drivers are under the age of 25, according to the RHA.

It says around 2,000 drivers are leaving the industry every week, often due to retirement, with only 1,000 new recruits joining over the same period.

Mr McKenzie told Sky News: “We’ve got an ageing population of lorry drivers so we’ve got more lorry drivers leaving the profession because they want to retire.

“We’ve got more drivers leaving than joining so as every week goes by so there’s something new in the supply chain that’s creaking and crumbling.”

Cost of training and pay

Mr McKenzie said the industry “needs to make the profession of a trucker much more enticing” to younger people and warned the cost of training was a deterrent.

“We want younger people to want to be truckers, and it’s expensive – at least £4,000, possibly £7,000 – to train to be a trucker and that’s beyond the pockets of most young people,” he told Sky News.

“So we’ve got to make it easier to take that financial burden away from them and make it easier for them to get in and stay in.

“One of the problems we’ve had has been low pay and that’s now being addressed.

“We’re seeing in many cases trucker pay has risen quite dramatically to around £40,000-£50,000 a year, which is very welcome.”

Tax changes

A change to rules on how people working off the payroll pay tax has been blamed for some HGV drivers leaving the industry.

The reform of the IR35 rules were designed to prevent workers from setting up limited companies through which they pay less tax and National Insurance while working, in effect, as an employee.

Victoria Short, chief executive of Randstad UK Recruitment, told Sky News it had resulted in many HGV drivers moving from self-employed status to employed status, which saw their earnings drop by as much as 25%.

Working conditions

Conditions at roadside services in the UK are “far worse” than in mainland Europe, according to Ms Short.

She said: “When we’re trying to attract talent from mainland Europe to come here and work, and the pay and conditions that they have there are better, we need to consider how we can looks at things like that for them as well.”

• What is being done to fix the problem?

Temporary visas

The government is expected to clear the way for a visa change allowing thousands of foreign lorry drivers to work in the UK.

The temporary measures would be aimed at HGV truckers from abroad plugging the gaps that have been blamed for causing the queues at petrol pumps and shortages in some food items.

Number 10 has insisted any move would be “very strictly time-limited” and Sky News understands that Boris Johnson has allowed ministers to relax immigration rules and issue visas that could allow up to 5,000 foreign lorry drivers to work in the UK.

But Mr McKenzie said the temporary visas “won’t solve” the problems facing the haulage industry, adding that “much more needs to be done on training, apprenticeships, testing and welfare facilities for truckers”.

Retailers Iceland, Morrisons and Ocado have called for the government to add HGV drivers to the list of shortage occupations.

That would allow foreign workers to apply for skilled worker visas to fill the current gaps.

HGV driving tests relaxed

The transport secretary announced earlier this month that HGV driving tests will be relaxed to allow 50,000 more to be taken in an attempt to tackle the shortage of lorry drivers ahead of Christmas.

Mr Shapps said three changes will happen to speed up the process after the suspension of tests during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The changes are:

• From 20 September, car drivers will not be able to take a test to tow a trailer or caravan to allow about 30,000 more HGV driving tests to be taken this year

• Tests will be made shorter, with the reversing exercise element removed and the uncoupling and recoupling exercise for trailer tests removed – and they will not have to be tested separately by a third party

• Articulated vehicle drivers will no longer have to get a licence for a smaller vehicle first. The government says this will allow about 20,000 more HGV tests each year and means drivers can gain licences and enter the industry more quickly.

Military support?

There have been reports that the government is set to call on HGV specialists from the military, including the Royal Logistics Corps, in an effort to tackle a deteriorating backlog of goods.

But Richard Burnett, who heads the RHA, told Sky News that deploying army personnel to help tackle the HGV driver shortage “will not scratch the surface” of the UK’s delivery crisis.

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