UK lorry driver shortages could last for a year, says industry boss

·3 min read
Lorries wait at the Port of Felixstowe in Suffolk, as shipping giant Maersk has said it is diverting vessels away from UK ports to unload elsewhere in Europe because of a build-up of cargo. Picture date: Wednesday October 13, 2021.
Lorries wait at the Port of Felixstowe in Suffolk, as shipping giant Maersk has said it is diverting vessels away from UK ports to unload elsewhere in Europe because of a build-up of cargo. Photo: PA

The policy head of the UK's Road Haulage Association warned on Tuesday that "things are not visibly getting better" for the UK's supply chains in the run-up to Christmas. 

Speaking at a Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee evidence session, Duncan Buchanan said that the industry is in a "very uncertain place" as companies that can pay more are poaching drivers from some essential suppliers.  

Buchanan also said that government support offered to the heavy goods vehicle (HGV) industry such as apprenticeships are not having an immediate effect and likely won't be felt for a year. 

He said that the average drivers' wage has increased by between 10% and 20% in the last six months and that businesses are renegotiating contracts to pass on costs to retailers.  

Speaking on Brexit Buchanan said that the industry is learning to navigate it. 

“Brexit is like a mountain, we have to deal with it — you have to either go over it, round it or through it,” he said. 

Adding to this, Neil Carberry, CEO of the Recruitment and Employment Confederation said that this is the "most active labour market we have ever seen" and that COVID-19 had tightened conditions in the labour market globally. 

Ian Wright, CEO of the Food and Drink Federation, noted that a combination of structural factors such as changing immigration patterns, increased demand in online shopping and foreign students no longer working their way through college are to blame for part of the labour and HGV crisis. 

He also warned on the "terrifying" issue of inflation which "discriminates against the poor". 

Wright said that current price increases are making relationships between suppliers "extremely fractious" and costs are likely to end up filtering through to consumers. 

A temporary visa scheme was put into action on Monday last week to attract foreign HGV drivers and poultry workers to the UK.

The government opened the scheme to grant time-limited visas for 5,000 HGV drivers and 5,500 poultry workers. It is currently taking three weeks for the government to process applications.

As of last week, only around 20 visas out of just 300 applications had been issued so far, meaning it will be at least November before significant numbers start working in the UK.

Read more: Budget 2021: Better recovery to help Sunak cut public borrowing by £30bn

Last week, shipping bosses warned that shoppers should plan ahead for Christmas amid delays at ports, with almost £1.5bn ($2bn) in goods hit by delays in the run-up to the festive season.

Cory Bros head Peter Wilson told the BBC on Wednesday that there may be less choice on the shelves because of the global supply chain slowdown, advising people to order items in a "timely fashion".

"I can say completely, categorically that supply chain will not fail and that goods will be on the shelves through Christmas," Wilson said on the BBC's Today programme. "There just may not be that absolute choice we're all used to."

A spokesperson for the UK's largest commercial port, Felixstowe, told the BBC that there are currently 50,000 containers waiting for collection.

Research by Russell Group showed that imports of clothing would feel the greatest impact, with retailers such as Tesco (TSCO.L) and Marks & Spencer (MKS.L) among the most exposed to disruption.

The analysis was based on 10 weeks of trade between 12 October and Christmas Day, and was modelled on 2020 figures.

Watch: Screeching U-turn over haulier rules 'not going to make a massive difference'

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