The warning signs have been there for a long time, but the heavy goods vehicle (HGV) driver shortage is now reaching crisis point and will only get worse in the run-up to Christmas.
In recent weeks we’ve seen more and more pictures of empty supermarket shelves, branches of Nando’s forced to close due to problems with supplies, and now McDonald’s has reportedly run out of milkshakes. This is the tip of the iceberg, with so many other firms struggling to move and receive their goods on time.
Tesco has been trying to tempt new drivers to join them with a £1,000 “signing fee” and local councils are starting to worry about losing their refuse collection drivers to the private sector because, given the demand for drivers, they won’t be able to match the wages.
The blame for this lies right at the government’s door.
The driver shortage is not a new problem. It has been building over several years and ministers have long ignored the warning signs. The trade union Unite represents many drivers and has a “Manifesto for Lorry Drivers“ including many sensible and practical proposals, yet Conservative ministers show no interest in sorting out this crisis.
But the dual impacts of the Conservatives’ reckless and chaotic approach to a trade deal with the EU and the Covid-19 pandemic, along with a failure to engage those working in the industry, have forced the logistics sector to breaking point.
The government’s response to this has been to increase the number of hours that already exhausted HGV drivers can work.
This move was met with disbelief by an industry that is already under immense pressure. Drivers have warned that this could increase their workload to dangerous levels and put road users at risk. Labour is clear - we cannot and will not support this.
We need a clear-sighted strategy from the government as to how it intends to fill what’s estimated to be a 90,000 shortfall in HGV drivers, which, with an ageing workforce and massive testing backlog, is only going to increase if nothing more is done to recruit more drivers.
The Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency (DVSA) is currently conducting around 3,000 HGV driver tests a week. At the current pass rate of 58 per cent, it would take over a year to fill the existing 90,000 vacancies. And that’s without taking retirements into account. The average age of an HGV driver is 55, and retiring drivers are simply not being replaced by younger workers at the same rate. We’ve also, of course, seen many EU drivers leave the country following Brexit.
The seriousness of this situation cannot be overemphasised. It is grinding our economy to a halt, just as companies are trying to get back to business as normal after a really tough year. Conservative chaos and incompetence will hold back our recovery.
We all know what the prime minister, Boris Johnson, infamously said about British business, but the government’s refusal to work with industry to address this growing economic crisis is now putting that philosophy into action – with one minister even accusing food industry leaders of “crying wolf” when they warned of the scale of the crisis.
Labour stands with businesses, drivers and consumers who desperately need a credible solution to address this, particularly in vital food supply chains.
That’s why we’re offering an alternative. We would work closely with industry to urgently expand testing capacity for HGV drivers, work to make the industry more attractive to a new generation of drivers and work with the Migration Advisory Committee to assess the extent of the skills shortage in this sector and identify how this can be recognised in the immigration points system. Labour would work with trade unions in the sector to make it a more attractive industry to work in and accessible to more people.
This industry has been overlooked and undervalued for too long. The seriousness of this situation cannot be overemphasised. It will lead to continued shortages of things important to our everyday lives, lost sales and contracts for businesses as well as slow-down our much-needed recovery.
This crisis isn’t going to go away, no matter how much ministers bury their heads in the sand. But Labour has a plan, and the government must listen before it’s too late.
Jim McMahon is the shadow secretary of state for transport and the Labour (Co-op) MP for Oldham West and Royton