Indian Sikh drivers inside a local truck in India
ID 39623826 © Piccaya |

Retailers are calling on the UK government to act urgently to address the HGV driver shortage, with McDonald’s the latest victim, reporting it has “run dry” of milkshakes.

Writing to business, energy and industrial strategy secretary Kwasi Kwarteng, the British Retail Consortium (BRC) and Logistics UK said even with the sector upping pay, doling out bonuses and improving training, it would not be able to offset a looming peak crisis.

“The current shortfall of around 90,000 HGV drivers is placing unsustainable pressure on retailers and their supply chains,” said BRC CEO Helen Wells.

“There was a shortage prior to Covid and Brexit, but these events exacerbated the situation. Covid halted driver training and testing for more than a year, while an estimated 25,000 EU drivers returned home during the pandemic and following the end of the [Brexit] transition period.”

With the imminent return of pupils to school, the easing of lockdown restrictions and the traditional holiday peak, there is mounting concern that supply chain problems could intensify.

So the associations are demanding the government immediately adopt three policies: increase driver testing capacity; review its decision not to grant temporary work visas for EU drivers; and a reform of the National Skills Fund to include driver training.

However, one independent haulier challenged the proposals as “wishful thinking”, adding that “most” of the EU drivers that returned to their home countries following Brexit had ‘settled status’ and it was, instead, the culture of larger hauliers that was pushing drivers away.

“The main focus should be on attracting drivers back into the industry – I know three who have gone early because of the poor conditions,” the haulier told The Loadstar.

“Increasing test capacity is in hand, and I believe will be welcome, but it will take time to come onstream; putting HGV drivers on the skills shortage will help and I’m surprised it hasn’t already been done; as for the Skills Fund, to train more drivers for Christmas? That really is wishful thinking. The number of tests is the problem and until this is increased and the backlog cleared, we will be on the back foot; we need to attract drivers back in.”

Although the driver shortage reached a crisis point half a decade ago, the availability of EU drivers masked the true situation, but with Brexit and Covid restrictions , the matter has become more pronounced and public facing.

The number of EU drivers who left the UK over the past 18 months has been quoted at 30,000, but smaller hauliers point the finger of blame at the industry itself.

“The model has been one of no commitment from the big employers to their drivers or their drivers’ welfare. If one driver won’t put up with the long hours and poor conditions, then they, or agencies, will find another,” one owner-operator said.

“While we had a continuous supply of European drivers the status quo [remained] – now it has changed, and we are seeing the panic.”

For its part, government has so far focused on urging business to invest domestically and navigate the shortage themselves, but some of the larger hauliers have been expressing mounting concern that they alone cannot fix the issue.

But this position has been challenged by smaller operators, three haulage firms having told The Loadstar they were not struggling to recruit, “because we treat our drivers well”.

Last week, The Loadstar reported container haulage was facing increased recruitment competition from a parcel delivery sector reportedly paying better rates, and Hermes has jumped on this, announcing a new scheme to entice more drivers. The 12-month training scheme is for LGV qualification, with 45 having signed up already, and with HGV shortages worsening, such schemes are likely to divert potential recruits.

For smaller operators, the worry now is that with desperation among larger firms with deeper pockets setting in, they could see their own drivers being offered wages they are unable to compete with.

And with stalwarts like McDonald’s finding itself impacted – it announced that bottled drinks and milkshakes were unavailable in 1,250 outlets – desperation is expected to intensify.

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