Lorry driver shortage: Government steps may not be enough 'to save Christmas'
Government steps to ease the lorry driver crisis may not be enough to prevent shortages on supermarket's shelves at Christmas, warns an industry expert.
Transport Minister Grant Shapps is holding talks with haulage and freight associations today with a view to streamlining HGV driver testing procedures in order to get more behind the wheel.
The supply chain industry has been left sagging under the pressure of the twin pressures of the pandemic and an exodus of European lorry drivers due to Brexit.
It has meant many of the biggest names have seen shortages in supplies, supermarkets running out of stock and even beer at our pubs running dry.
But with no immediate solution to the problem, there are mounting fears shelves could be depleted at Christmas, traditionally the period of highest demand, fuelling Government anxieties of another disrupted festive season.
It is understood talks taking place in Whitehall today involve abolishing the gap between drivers taking what is known as their Class C licence - for large, rigid, lorries - and Class E - which allows them to drive the larger articulated trucks.
Currently they have to wait weeks before being able to upgrade.
But it is likely to be too little too late, according to some.
Graham Pask from the Road Haulage Association explained: "It will make a significant differences. But these measures won't be in time. It's not going to save Christmas.
"Just because you have your driving licence, a new driver shouldn't be expected to jump in a vehicle and drive it. There's a whole myriad of training and a responsible operator would always put a new driver through a training period."
He adds Christmas supplies are already in the process of being transported around the country - and any steps taken to ease the issue will be too little too late.
And he warns the industry was already feeling the strain due to cuts over the years to the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency (DVSA).
"It's a severely under-funded government body," said Mr Pask, the association's South East area manager. "Investment would help the industry as a whole from compliance to the driver training side.
"It was struggling under the weight of cuts before Covid and Brexit."
The result has seen a shortage of driving test inspectors - and a reduction in the number of HGV test centres.
Each of those already have huge backlogs after tests were suspended throughout 2020 due to the pandemic - preventing an influx of new drivers to the industry. Compounded with the loss of EU drivers, the logistics industry is now in a state of crisis.
The RHA has called on the Government to add HGV drivers to the essential workers list in the short-term, in order to attract many back from Europe.
But Mr Pask warns it may be too late. He explains: "If you brought them back in that's great - but most will have gone back and be earning good money there now. Why jump through the hoops to come and work here when you can keep working in, say Germany, where you can just turn up and get a job because it's part of the EU?
"In my opinion, the simple solution is to drive efficiencies in the distribution chains to ensure fast turnaround of trucks. Currently many will be held up for four hours at one distribution centre when it could have taken just one. That could be any extra two loads a week they could have been delivering. Multiple that around the country and it would make a big difference.
"Secondly, to relax the laws to allow retired drivers to come back into the business without the need to do 35 hours of extra training to get their licence back. Employers could get them in for two days training to ensure their skills are up to standard instead.
"And, finally, short-term permission for EU drivers to return."
An announcement from the Government on the outcome of the talks is expected later today.