Government panic over driver shortage

London, UK: The government is offering 10,500 temporary UK visas to truck drivers and poultry workers in a bid to limit disruption in the run-up to Christmas.

The government says 5,000 drivers will be eligible to work in the UK for three months, until Christmas Eve with the scheme also extended to include 5,500 poultry workers.

The scheme comes as traffic queues built outside petrol filling station shut because of a lack of fuel and ambulance services unable to function due lack.

Warnings from supermarkets that consumers faced the prospect of empty shelves at Christmas do not seem to have any effect on the government.

The freight transport operators estimates a shortage of about 90,000 HGV drivers. The British Retail Consortium says that supermarkets alone need an additional 15,000 HGV drivers to operate at full capacity ahead of Christmas and avoid disruption or availability issue.

British Chamber of Commerce president Baroness McGregor-Smith said the changes were the “equivalent of throwing a thimble of water on a bonfire”, as it would “not be enough to address the scale of the problem”.

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said the measures would “ensure preparations remain on track” for the festive season. Other measures include using an unspecified number of Ministry of Defence examiners to increase heavy goods vehicle testing capacity, and sending nearly one million letters to drivers who hold an HGV licence, encouraging them back into the industry.

Recruitment for additional short-term HGV drivers and poultry workers will begin in October. Officials said the loan of MoD examiners would help put on “thousands of extra tests” over the next 12 weeks. How this measure will help an industry that needs truck drivers, preferably with more that a few days driving experience, in October when Christmas season demand starts to peak is nit mentioned.

Shapps, in a denial that Brexit has anything to do with the driver or other worker shortage said: “We are acting now, but the industries must also play their part with working conditions continuing to improve and the deserved salary increases continuing to be maintained in order for companies to retain new drivers.

“After a very difficult 18 months, I know how important this Christmas is for all of us and that’s why we’re taking these steps at the earliest opportunity to ensure preparations remain on track.”

Trade association Logistics UK estimates that the UK is in need of about 90,000 HGV drivers – with existing shortages made worse by a number of factors, including the pandemic, Brexit, an ageing workforce, and low wages and poor working conditions. The Department for Transport said it recognised that importing foreign labour “will not be the long-term solution” to the problem and that it wanted to see employers invest to build a “high-wage, high-skill economy”.

It said up to 4,000 people would soon be able to take advantage of training courses to become HGV drivers. This includes free, short, intensive courses, funded by the Department for Education, to train up to 3,000 new HGV drivers.

These new “skills bootcamps” will train drivers to be “road ready and gain a Cat C or Cat C&E license”, helping to tackle the current HGV driver shortage. The remaining 1,000 drivers will be trained through courses accessed locally and funded by the government’s adult education budget, the DfT said.

Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi said: “We are taking action to tackle the shortage of drivers by removing barriers to help more people to launch new well-paid careers in the industry, supporting thousands to get the training they need to be road ready.”

The Food and Drink Federation and Logistics UK welcomed the visa changes but the haulage industry is unimpressed my the measure. Marco Digioia, the head of the European Road Haulers Association said “much more would be needed” than a temporary relaxation of immigration rules.

He is not convinced that there are queues of EU driver snd workers waiting to return to the UK “There is a driver shortage across Europe,” he said. “I am not sure how many would want to go to the UK.” Digioia said European driver salaries were generally higher than in Britain; new EU rules had improved working conditions; and billions of euros had been offered to fund parking areas and support companies.

“The UK doesn’t have access to any of that,” he said. “Tempting European drivers back to the UK when they also have to face the reality of customs and border checks, all the uncertainties of Brexit … We have to be realistic.”

Higher salaries, and perhaps tax incentives, might help in the short term, he said, but “a lot of money is being thrown at this whole problem in Europe right now. There’s a level playing field, and none of the Brexit-related hassle”.

The government also faces an impending shortage of short-term workers needed to cope with the autumn demand for food pickers and packagers.

As well as the shortfall in deliveries to supermarkets, the acute difficulties that have faced the hospitality sector are expected to widen. Ian Wright, chief executive, Food and Drink Federation, warned that all business will soon be competing to see which can pay the most. “My guess is that several of the supermarkets are in a comparable position [shortage of workers] which is why there are shortages on the shelves,” Wright said.

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In the August issue of Cold Chain News, out now, Gist reveals that it is offering incentives of up to £5,000 for HGV drivers to join its business from August in order to boost capability and resources to deliver chilled foods and fresh produce. bit.ly/3z6j8Si #coldchain

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