Lorry driver crisis won’t be eased in time to avoid Christmas chaos, officials concede

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HGV crisis - Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg
HGV crisis - Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

Government officials have privately conceded that the lorry driver crisis will not be resolved in time to prevent disruption at Christmas, The Telegraph has been told.

Ministers are scrambling to address widespread supply chain problems for retailers, supermarkets and restaurants, which are being fuelled by a shortfall of 90,000 HGV drivers.

In recent weeks, they have moved to address the situation by doubling the number of testing slots for new hauliers and extending lorry driver hours.

A new ministerial group chaired by Stephen Barclay, the Cabinet Office minister, is also monitoring the problems amid fears the disruption could lead to restriction of choice at supermarkets and restaurants in the run-up to Christmas.

However, senior Whitehall insiders have claimed the departments involved have concluded that they are too late to fully resolve the problems before the festive period.

It is understood that, in recent meetings, officials warned that even if they "pull every single policy lever" available, the benefit will not be fully realised until the New Year. Instead, the measures are seen primarily as a way of addressing long-term problems with HGV driver shortages and supply chains.

"The amount of mitigations that can be done for Christmas are minimal," a source added.

Several industry leaders, who have warned of chaos in the run-up to Christmas, told The Telegraph they shared that assessment.

With concern growing over the impact, it is also understood that there remains a "live discussion" about placing lorry drivers on the immigration shortage occupation list.

This would allow British firms to recruit European lorry drivers more easily through the fast-track visa route, with the policy option said to be one of several highlighted in official papers presented at recent cross-Whitehall meetings.

Doing so would represent a major U-turn, with ministers so far insisting companies must begin to recruit more British drivers rather than looking to cheap foreign labour from abroad.

On Wednesday night, Cabinet Office sources insisted no decision had been taken, pointing out that Mr Barclay had only just replaced Michael Gove as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. However, they added that he was determined to "find a resolution" and considered it one of his top priorities.

It came as Minette Batters, the head of the National Farmers Union, wrote to Boris Johnson warning that, without urgent action, shelves would "go empty and consumers will panic buy to try and get through the winter".

In the letter, signed by 12 food and drink trade associations, Ms Batters reiterated widespread calls from industry leaders for the Government to introduce an emergency "Covid recovery visa" which would enable them to recruit staff from abroad to fill vacancies.

"The supply chain will be critically damaged beyond recovery if it cannot overcome the immediate crisis," the letter said. "We must have an urgent commitment from you to enable the industry to recruit from outside the UK over the next 12 months to get us through the winter and to help us save Christmas."

Echoing her concerns, Ian Wright, the chief executive of the Food and Drink Federation, told The Telegraph: "My position since the early summer is that just-in-time supply chains are eroding.

"That doesn't mean there's going to be a winter of discontent, but it does mean that some of the things that we thought were immutable – that everything would get to the supermarket and restaurant on time, in all areas – will not be from now on."

Duncan Buchanan, the policy director of the Road Haulage Association, said: "We've been banging on about this for a long time now. The pace of Government and the pace of institutional thinking has not been sufficient to deal with the immediate problems.

"The measures that are being taken are too slow to deal with the issues. To affect the Christmas period it should have been done before now."

Mr Buchanan added that the only policy option he believed could make a "decent contribution" to addressing supply chain problems before Christmas would be to temporarily suspend the requirement for lorry drivers to complete a series of refresher courses needed to maintain their certificate of professional competence.

These are required to be taken every five years and are often grouped together, meaning drivers are required to come off the road for a week. Mr Buchanan said the requirement was "resented" by experienced drivers, adding that many drivers had retired early rather than be forced to "sit in a classroom for five days and be bored to death because of inferior training".

"It's right we do this for road safety – but we are in a crisis," he added. "It would require legislation, but no one is willing to do it."

Speaking to MPs on Wednesday, Grant Shapps, the Transport Secretary, said the HGV crisis was improving "week by week". Appearing before the Commons transport committee, he said: "This is absolutely global. But we've had an additional systematic issue in this country for a very long time.

"We've continually allowed our domestic market to underperform by simply having wages undercut by people coming in prepared to do the job for less and in pretty bad conditions sometimes. That's the wider picture we're determined to resolve.

"We've seen a very welcome rise in salaries. I think this will provide incentive for people to come into this market."

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