Delivery driver crisis could lead to empty shelves at Christmas

·3 min read
Empty shelves - JUSTIN TALLIS /AFP
Empty shelves - JUSTIN TALLIS /AFP

Christmas shopping risks being ruined by a shortage of lorry drivers caused by Covid restrictions and the migration of foreign staff, a senior manager at one of Britain’s biggest logistics companies has warned.

The pandemic has delayed the training of new drivers and prompted many existing drivers to return to their home countries.

It means empty shelves and shortages caused by the pingdemic could return at times of peak demand, especially as Britain has turned into a nation of online shoppers, raising demand for deliveries.

Ian Keilty, chief operating officer at Wincanton, said: “We have seen a massive step up in home deliveries, taking things into people’s houses. The Black Friday boom and the runup to Christmas is likely to be hugely challenging.

“Supply chains tend to take a while to spring back into the shape we are used to when everybody can get everything whenever they want it. Even that magical date in August [when double-vaccinated adults no longer need to isolate when pinged] isn’t the cure-all. We have got six to 12 months of challenge.”

Even the new policy of allowing a certain number of critical staff to test daily instead of self-isolating is not enough, he said at a Confederation of British Industry (CBI) event.

“We really need a broader exemption around the driver population. It is a networked operation - I have drivers who might move DIY products in the morning, but in the afternoon they might be moving product into a supermarket supply chain,” he said.

“It is not hugely helpful to have a very restrictive set of exemptions in terms of getting the UK moving and keeping it fed.”

Rain Newton Smith, the CBI’s chief economist, said speeding up the end of self-isolation would help as would a “test and release” setup, but that more lorry drivers are needed irrespective of these policies.

“We need to look at the skills shortages list,” she said, referring to the immigration system which makes allowances for jobs which are in particularly high demand.

She praised the Government’s work on “high skilled” migration, but said it needs to be extended.

“Infuriatingly, HGV drivers do not fit into that skill category, but anyone will attest you cannot just get into an HGV, it is a skilled role,” she said.

“We really need to revisit those occupation lists and it needs to be easier to update it when we have the issues we are seeing, it cannot just be something which is looked at once every year or two years. It needs to be more agile.”

A Government spokesperson said: “The British people repeatedly voted to end free movement and take back control of our immigration system and employers should invest in our domestic workforce instead of relying on labour from abroad.

"We're working with industry and have already taken action on HGV driver shortages, including ramping up vocational test capacity, and funding apprenticeships. We have also announced a temporary relaxation of drivers’ hours rules to allow them to make slightly longer journeys, which must only be used where necessary."

The next review is due "not before 2022".

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