As James Firth, the organisation’s head of road freight regulation policy explains, the announcement will heap more pressure on drivers who are already stretched to the limit to deliver for UK PLC: “Government has ignored the industry in deciding to relax these road safety laws,” he explains, “and it will be the hard-pressed HGV drivers on our roads who have to carry the burden. Throughout the pandemic, the UK’s professional drivers have kept our shops, homes and businesses supplied with everything needed to keep the economy going, but the current workforce cannot be expected to fill the gaps created by the current skills shortage. The road freight industry vehemently opposed the extension of these vital road safety laws, yet the government has ignored the will of those who will be most affected by the changes.
“The logistics sector has been experiencing a significant shortage of drivers for a number of years, but this situation has been exacerbated by factors including the Covid-19 pandemic and Brexit, which has seen many EU workers return to their home countries. The industry needs a longer-term solution to the recruitment of drivers – including temporary visas for EU workers to cover the gaps while new recruits can be trained, and interest free loans for those wishing to enter the market – not a stop-gap measure that will heap more pressure on existing workers. The relaxation of drivers hours should only be used in an emergency situation, when a foreseeable end date can be identified – or is the government suggesting that the current shortage of drivers will be resolved by 8 August?”
Before the pandemic and Brexit, logistics was already experiencing a shortage of around 76,000 drivers, and Logistics UK now estimates the shortfall to be approximately 90,000 workers.
Extension of working hours is not the solution
Mr Firth believes that the industry is certain that an extension of drivers’ hours will not have the required impact and could, instead, be detrimental to the existing workforce: “Existing drivers have been working flat out since the start of the pandemic, and this could be the final straw for many of them. Instead of trying to paper over the gaps, government should be working with industry to produce a plan to support moving drivers through the current bottleneck of HGV driving tests and support potential new entrants to the industry with the expensive process of acquiring a professional driving licence. Industry met with Transport and Work & Pensions ministers to discuss the situation on 16 June, but no plan has been forthcoming to date – extending working hours is untenable and not the solution to the wider issue. Logistics businesses need and deserve answers, not wallpapering over the problem!”
In response to the relaxation of driver hours, Tim Doggett, chief executive, Chemical Business Association (CBA) said: “Relaxing driver hours is an inadequate reaction to the chronic shortage of HGV drivers. It is also likely to be counter-productive and may even make the problem worse. Many drivers are already away from their families for considerable periods of time and already work up to 15-hour days. Expecting them to work more hours against this background is completely unrealistic.”
He added: “Relaxing driver hours does not address the central problem. There is a shortage of 60,000 HGV drivers and simply extending driver’s hours is not appropriate or effective solution. This is a chronic issue that now needs urgent action. We recently called a joint Government-Industry partnership to lay the foundations for a more permanent solution to the issue, including the immediate and urgent need to establish a task force to which CBA would be willing to contribute.”
Permanent solutions needed
The CBA also recently wrote a letter to the Prime Minister, in support of the Road Haulage Association’s (RHA) letter, dated 23 June 2021, on the shortage of HGV drivers. The letter emphasised the critical impact of driver shortages on the UK economy, as well as thousands of manufacturing and process industries which are all dependent on road transport.
The letter also stated: “We recognise and endorse the causes outlined by the RHA that have exacerbated the chronic shortage of drivers. Vocational training and the acquisition of qualifications, including sector specific areas such as the Carriage of Dangerous Goods, have been significantly hampered by Covid-19 restrictions. This can only exacerbate the current situation.”
A recent Chemical Business Association survey revealed that 62% of member companies were reporting capacity issues with road haulage in the UK and 76% were reporting similar constraints in relation to cross-channel haulage. This situation will inevitably worsen over the coming months as demand increases ahead of the traditional peak season later in the year.