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Warnings of delays to home deliveries and supermarket shortages as HGV driver shortages bite

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Driver shortages that are already hitting wholesalers and deliveries to care homes and supermarkets could soon mean delays to home deliveries and shortages in supermarkets, it’s being warned today. 

The Road Haulage Association (RHA) and the Federation of Wholesale Distributors (FWD) were among those warning recently that the driver shortage was now at crisis point, with a growing shortfall in numbers of HGV drivers. This is being put down to Brexit and Covid-19, with delays in driver training and testing added to an exodus of European lorry drivers following the UK’s departure from the customs union and single market. 

Now, says David Jinks, head of consumer research at home delivery specialist ParcelHero, the effects of the shortage are set to be felt in home delivery and on supermarket shelves, hitting online deliveries as a result. 

He says: “Home deliveries of food and goods are already being impacted by the driver shortage, with some stores also running low on stock. We could soon be facing shortages as bad as those at the start of the first lockdown, which could mean a return to the rationing of staple foods.

“The reason is all too obvious. Our analysis of Government figures last October showed thousands of EU drivers and warehouse operatives fleeing the UK to avoid Brexit regulations. Many EU citizens didn’t meet the Government’s proposed criteria for skilled work visas. This mass exodus was exacerbated by the impact of Covid-19, which brought the training of new lorry drivers to a standstill. UK retailers and their supply chain partners now face a perfect storm.”

Last week, Tesco chief executive Ken Murphy said the supermarket had seen HGV driver shortages but was working to address that. Speaking to analysts after first quarter results, reports Reuters, Murphy said: “In terms of labour availability we’ve seen some shortage specifically in HGV drivers but we’re working really hard to address that. We’e already got plans to address the shortfall and we’re working closely with the suppliers.”

Calls for action

RHA chief executive Richard Burnett is warning that shoppers could soon see extra costs passed on to them and has a 12-point plan for the industry, which includes a seasonal visa scheme for qualified HGV drivers, priority driving tests, a return to HGV driving scheme and improved productivity of the road network.

He says: “The upturn in the economy since Covid-19 is increasing demand across supply chains and the reopening of non-essential retail outlets and parts of the hospitality sector is making the situation even worse. The pandemic also resulted in the loss of about 12 months of driver training and testing. The long-term ineffectiveness of apprenticeships for lorry drivers and the general hostility from authorities and Government is also unhelpful for recruiting and retaining drivers.” This he says, means that freight rates are now rising to a level that is unsustainable for operators, and that costs will have to be passed on to consumers. He says: “We need Government to act and address the driver shortage for the industry and the drivers. While we welcome the increase in HGV apprenticeship funding to £7,000, this barely scratches the surface of the problem.” 

FWD chief executive James Bielby says: “The driver shortage has reached crisis point for some of our members and we believe it is likely to get worse as more hospitality venues open and demand increases.

“With the estimated 70,000 shortfall in HGV drivers, some wholesalers have had to limit the number of deliveries they make to convenience stores which has led to some availability issues. They have done all they can to keep their customers stocked, including raising drivers’ wages and even sending depot staff out in non-HGV vehicles to fulfil smaller orders. Some have had to turn down business in order to fulfil orders to regular customers.” 

Last week the FWD met ministers to discuss options including having army drivers on standby to ensure food distribution is not interrupted, with warnings that the whole supply chain could be affected.  

“Wholesalers have tried engaging agencies but these are also short of drivers,” says Bielby. “The product manufacturers who supply into the wholesale channel have similar issues with distribution and our members are reporting particular difficulties getting hold of soft drinks, beer, and chilled products like cream, cheese, yoghurt and meats.”

The FWD is asking the government to extend the hours drivers can work to 11 a day, while other proposals include ending furlough for HGV drivers and using the army to deliver to vulnerable communities. 

ParcelHero’s Jinks says that as yet these requests are falling on deaf ears from a UK government keen to see UK workers fill the vacancies rather than rely on labour from abroad. 

He says: “Once abroad, drivers face huge delays at Customs and intrusive Covid testing. In the UK, there’s a reduction in truck stops where they can rest safely and the introduction of IR35 tax changes that have driven up their costs considerably. It is small wonder few UK citizens are keen to train as new drivers and many existing professionals are leaving their jobs.

“Two significant changes need to happen to ensure the UK has the drivers it needs. First, it’s time UK drivers were more widely recognised and compensated for the essential role they play in supporting industry and retailers. Secondly, it is high time the UK Government worked with the EU to clear up issues around Customs delays and charges, Northern Ireland deliveries and increased transport costs. That means revisiting some of the terms of the fudged, last-minute UK-EU Brexit agreement, which is clearly not fit for purpose.”

Andrew Tavener, head of marketing at Descartes UK says using software could help transport companies handle the delivery demands on them more efficiently.

He says: “The UK’s HGV driver shortage is becoming increasingly concerning, with the perfect storm of Brexit, Covid-19 and growing demands exacerbating the problem. There are numerous reports of the lack of qualified drivers creating difficulties for the logistics industry, which is having a severe impact on many different sectors, including retail and manufacturing.

“Advanced route optimisation software allows transport operators to use fewer vehicles to deliver more goods in fewer miles. These solutions ensure that now and, in the future, companies will have less demand for drivers because they are maximising their fleet’s potential.”

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