Government must swallow its pride and reverse decision not to grant temporary work visas to HGV drivers from EU - Mark Casci

First Haribo warned of sweet supplies being threatened, then Nando’s ran out of chicken.

The new trade deal between the UK and the EU has also meant shake-ups to the way goods are handled at our ports, making importing and exporting more challenging for business, says Mark Caci

Now we have learned that McDonald’s has run out of milkshakes.

That so many institutions are failing to be able to offer their customers basic staples of their business feels very much like an ‘end of days’ scenario and was utterly unthinkable 18 months ago.

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The reason of course is lorry drivers and the lack thereof.

Depending on which trade body you ask, Britain’s haulage industry is currently carrying between 90,000 and 100,000 vacancies. That is around the population of the city of Wakefield.

As with many crises, the reason for this dire state of affairs is complicated but the main reasons being cited by commentators are Brexit and Covid.

It is undoubtedly true that both of these factors have played a role in exacerbating the current situation.

Our exit from the Single Market means that drivers from EU nations can no longer come and go as they please. It is well documented that many foreign drivers, based in the UK, have returned to their nation of birth or relocated elsewhere within the trading block.

The new trade deal between the UK and the EU has also meant shake-ups to the way goods are handled at our ports, making importing and exporting more challenging for business.

And as if this situation were not bad enough, the pandemic stopped any driver training or testing activity for more than 12 months. This combination of factors led to an estimated 25,000 EU drivers returning home.

However the haulage industry had a problem before Brexit and before Covid. Before either reared their head the sector was still carrying 60,000 vacancies.

Like many sectors of the economy upon which our day-to-day lives are heavily reliant (see also farming), the average age of a lorry driver is creeping up, currently standing at 55.

The nature of the job involves long hours and a great deal of time away from home, something not suited to everyone.

This, combined with a perception that the industry is low paid, has resulted in more than 20,000 fewer candidates coming forward to become a lorry driver.

The Government is trying to do something about the situation.

It took measures to relax the rules concerning how many hours a driver could work, specifically increasing the daily limit from nine to 11 hours, twice a week.

A push to recruit an additional 40 HGV test examiners is also underway to speed up the process of getting new entrants into the industry.

However these alone are not enough.

It needs to swallow its pride and reverse its ideological decision not to grant temporary work visas to HGV drivers from the EU.

Rather than hiding behind the ‘Britain voted to leave’ jingoism, it can institute a short-term, timeabled window to allow drivers to keep Britain moving while we train domestic drivers.

These measures are crucial. While the shortages are posing inconveniences to both business and consumers, the situation will soon begin to deteriorate rapidly if not addressed.

With many businesses set to throw off more Covid restrictions once the holiday season is out of the way, demand will begin to pick up and then soar as we enter the Black Friday and Christmas rush period which is historically the haulage industry’s busiest time of year.

This matters particularly here in Yorkshire. The region is the logistics capital of the country. It is responsible for thousands of jobs and generates millions of pounds. It cannot operate with one hand tied behind its back.

With the economic recovery already in a fragile state, and with consumers having gone through hell this past 18 months, the last thing we need is more disruption.

As I type I have learned that pigs-in-blankets are the latest product to face shortages owing to the shortage.

While the Government has a duty to implement Brexit, it can do so in a pragmatic method, and one that does not ruin Christmas.

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