The government has unveiled a package of measures to increase the supply of HGV drivers amid panic buying at fuel stations and fears about food shortages. But the industry says the plans barely scratch the surface.
On Saturday the government said that 5,000 temporary visas will made available to allow HGV drivers from overseas to work in the UK until 21 December 2021, which will provide short-term relief for the industry’s labour supply issues.
However, the Home Office has been clear that employing migrant workers is not a long term solution and urged the logistics industry to increase pay and improve diversity and working conditions.
The Department for Education is also creating new skills “bootcamps” to train up to 3,000 drivers, while 1,000 training places will be made available in local areas.
Drivers who have left the industry will also be encouraged to return to the sector with letters going out this week, and HGV driver testing capacity at DLVA centres is also being increased with the deployment of defence driving examiners from the armed forces.
Fuel tanker drivers, however, need additional safety training and must usually have at least one year’s experience of driving lorries. The government said it would work with the industry to ensure drivers can access training as quickly as possible.
The industry welcomed the temporary arrangements, but many commentators have said it barely scratches the surface of the issue of HGV driver supply.
Andrew Opie, food and sustainability policy director at the British Retail Consortium, said the 5,000 limit would “do little to alleviate the current shortfall”, while the Road Haulage Association (RHA) has said haulage firms will need further information about how they can start recruiting from abroad.
RHA chief executive Richard Burnett said: “It’s unlikely the UK will get more than a few weeks from any overseas trucker, once they have applied, been granted permission and found somewhere to live in the UK, quite apart from leaving their current job and that may not be enough for companies or the drivers themselves to be attractive.
“We welcome the fact that we have real support for recruiting new UK drivers under this plan, in 2022 we expect we will start to see a difference.”
Adrian Jones, national officer for road transport at the Unite union, said: “By plundering workers from other nations, the government is propping up a broken and exploitative system. Kicking these issues into the long grass instead of taking decisive steps now will only create worse disruption down the line.”
Unite called on the government to ensure that safeguards are put in place to prevent migrant workers from being exploited, and said it should set sector wide standards on pay and conditions that will address the root causes of the shortages.
It’s unlikely the UK will get more than a few weeks from any overseas trucker, once they have applied, been granted permission and found somewhere to live in the UK” – Richard Burnett, Road Haulage Association
Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesperson Alistair Carmichael said: “These changes will barely scratch the surface of the desperate labour shortages facing our economy.
“The UK needs 100,000 more HGV drivers, yet the Conservatives are only prepared to grant 5,000 temporary visas.
“Instead of this piecemeal approach, Boris Johnson should permanently add HGV drivers to the skilled workers list so they can be easily recruited from abroad. Ministers must get to grips with this crisis before more people’s lives are thrown into turmoil.”
Elizabeth de Jong, director of policy at Logistics UK, said: “The government’s decision to grant 5,000 temporary visas for HGV drivers to help in the short term is a huge step forward; we are so pleased the government has listened to our calls and has made this bold decision to support the UK economy.
“We are also delighted that DfT have agreed to jointly send nearly 1 million letters to all drivers who currently hold an HGV driving licence. With fantastic HGV driving opportunities available in the logistics industry, now is the perfect time to consider returning to the occupation.”
Transport secretary Grant Shapps said the transport industry must also play its part in solving the problem by improving working conditions and pay to attract new drivers from the UK.
“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,” he added.
Meanwhile the government is also making temporary visas available to up to 5,500 poultry workers ahead of Christmas to avoid any potential risks to the festive food supply.
The Food and Drink Federation’s chief executive, Ian Wright, said: “We welcome the government’s pragmatic decision to temporarily add HGV drivers and poultry workers to the existing visa scheme.
“This is something UK food and drink manufacturers have asked for over the last few months – including in industry’s Grant Thornton report – to alleviate some of the pressure labour shortages have placed on the food supply chain.
“This is a start but we need the government to continue to collaborate with industry and seek additional long term solutions.”
Chetal Patel, a partner in the immigration team at Bates Wells said: “This latest U-turn in policy shows that the Home Office has the power to deal with job shortages, but these solutions fall far short from what is required.
“Whilst the government offering 5,000 short-term visas to HGV drivers and manufacturing workers appears to be good news – it’s a short-term solution to a longer-term problem. Given the extreme shortages, more needs to be done to make this an attractive route for EU workers. Few will be tempted to uproot their lives for the sake of little more than two months’ work.
“We’ll get more pinch points in the future, if we can’t find a longer term solution. Since Brexit it’s become more obvious that our domestic workforce don’t necessarily want to fill roles that EU workers traditionally held.”