Unions are right to be concerned about temporary extension of HGV drivers' working hours in response to supply chain pressures- Greg Wright

THE next time you walk into a supermarket, take a moment to consider the people who bring the food to your shopping basket.

Hauliers have also blamed the shortage on a large proportion of drivers being foreign nationals from European countries who had returned to the EU, combined with truck drivers not being included on the Government’s list of skilled labour, leaving new arrivals needing immigration paperwork.

In particular, try and imagine the daily routine of Britain’s lorry drivers, who have been worth their weight in gold over the last 18 months.

Sadly, they are a threatened breed. The boss of the UK’s biggest dairy supplier has said supermarkets could face disruption to milk deliveries if the Government does not act to address a shortage of lorry drivers.

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Arla, which supplies milk to about 2,400 stores each day in the UK, has said it was unable to deliver to 600 stores on a Saturday in late July due to dwindling driver numbers.

Ash Amirahmadi, managing director of Arla Foods UK, told the BBC the company has struggled to deliver to 10% of stores on a more regular basis in recent weeks. In July, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps announced a consultation to ease driver qualification requirements as part of a package of measures designed to help the issue.

He also announced a temporary extension of lorry drivers’ working hours from nine to 10 hours a day. However, the Road Haulage Association, which believes there is a shortage of 100,000 drivers, said the relaxation was a “sticking plaster”. Around 30,000 HGV driving tests did not take place last year due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Hauliers have also blamed the shortage on a large proportion of drivers being foreign nationals from European countries who had returned to the EU, combined with truck drivers not being included on the Government’s list of skilled labour, leaving new arrivals needing immigration paperwork. Supermarkets have assured shoppers they have plenty of food.

However, union leaders have criticised a decision to extend the relaxation of lorry driving hours as “dangerous”.

The Department for Transport (DfT) announced an extension from this week until October amid a continued shortage of drivers.

According to unions, the huge demand means HGV drivers are already exhausted. The last thing they need is the prospect of working longer hours. The union Unite is calling for improvements in pay and welfare facilities for drivers to make the industry more attractive.

The DfT said: “In response to pressures on local and national supply chains, the Department for Transport has introduced a temporary relaxation of the enforcement of the retained EU drivers’ hours rules in England, Scotland and Wales.

“The temporary relaxation of the rules reflects the exceptional circumstances stemming from a shortage of heavy goods vehicle (HGV) drivers causing acute supply chain pressures.”

The Government has said the changes will allow HGV drivers to make slightly longer journeys, but must only be used where necessary and not compromise driver safety.

This is a textbook case of slamming the stable door after the horse has bolted. The driver shortage pre-dates the pandemic. Many observers warned that it was at risk of becoming more severe after Brexit.

The extra border bureaucracy was always likely to dissuade European drivers from driving in and out of the UK after we left the EU. If steps had been taken to fast-track paperwork for EU-based lorry drivers - even for say, a period of just two or three years - then the shortages would surely not have been so acute.

The key issue is finding a pipeline of new talent which reflects the diversity of modern society. That’s why pay and conditions must be improved. Asking lorry drivers to work longer hours, even in the short-term, is not the solution. The unions are right be concerned. Driving hours rules are there to keep everyone safe.

A more sophisticated approach, which includes temporary measures to make it easier for EU drivers to work in the UK, alongside commitments to improve pay, access to parking and toilets would certainly help ease the crisis. Above all, we need to change the way operators seek new drivers.

Why for example, do so few women and members of ethnic minority groups become drivers? If we can answer these questions, the problem might start to solve itself.

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