No milkshakes in McDonalds. Not enough chicken at KFC and Nando’s. Empty supermarket shelves. Even Christmas may be at risk. And all because there are not enough lorry drivers — possibly by up to 100,000 — to get supplies to our stores and restaurants.
The reasons for this shortage are complex. Brexit, plus Covid, plus a new immigration system, has resulted in many drivers returning home to Europe. Few have stayed in the UK and, under the new immigration system, it’s more difficult to do so.
But that’s not the end of the story. Lorry drivers’ pay has been squeezed over the past decade as truck companies have competed for retailers’ contracts. Many drivers set themselves up as limited companies so as to pay less tax but that loophole has been shut. Fewer young people are now becoming drivers, deterred by low pay and unpredictable hours. Those who have tried to join have seen their tests cancelled thanks to Covid.
It’s possible that there will be a boost to recruitment when furlough comes to an end next month; unfortunately, some people will not be able to remain in their existing jobs without that support. But even then, potential recruits will need training and a test.
Employers will have to pay drivers more — the normal market response to a shortage of supply — and this will be paid for by retailers and, ultimately, shoppers. But that too will take time.
To tackle the shortfall, the Government has relaxed the number of hours HGV drivers can drive. It’s also considering whether to allow longer lorries onto our roads. But a more comprehensive approach is required.
To fill the vacancies now, testing for licences should be accelerated. Immigration rules should be reviewed. To attract more people into the sector, HGV training needs funding. The tax and employment rights of drivers should be overhauled to reflect the needs of the “gig economy”. If ever there was a need for joined-up — or in this case, articulated — government, this is it.