Will the Home Office Be Forced To Implement Visas for EU Lorry Drivers?
In recent weeks, the media has been awash with stories relating to the possibility of shortages in our shops and supermarkets as a result of a lack of lorry drivers. According to the BBC, freight companies are reporting a “massive” shortfall in the availability of lorry drivers in the UK, for which they are putting the blame on the pandemic, Brexit, and poor pay. Many consumers may not realise the impact because the supermarkets, so far, have been able to balance their resources, but this is not expected to be sustainable. In this article, we will take a closer look at the UK’s lorry driver shortage and whether the Home Office will implement a visa to alleviate the problem.
The Lorry Driver Shortage In The UK In Numbers
While it is difficult to understand the exact scale of the issues caused by the lorry driver shortage in the UK, it is estimated that:
- There were around 320,000 lorry drivers in the UK in 2020
- 15,000 European lorry drivers have left the UK in the last 12 months
- The UK is currently short of around 6,000 lorry drivers, but some reports put this as high as between 65,000 and 100,000
- Around 12 months of lorry driver training and testing has been lost
- It is estimated that around 30,000 HGV tests are being cancelled and drivers self-isolating due to the pandemic
- Online retail sales now represent around 28% of all retail sales – compared to less than 20% in 2019.
- The logistics sector contributes £127 billion to the UK economy and spans 205,000-plus businesses, according to Logistics UK
- According to Tesco, the shortage of lorry drivers is leading to an additional 48 tonnes of food being disposed of each week
What is the real impact of the lorry driver shortage in the UK?
There are countless anecdotal impacts of the lorry driver shortage in the UK. Supermarkets such as Lidl, Morrisons, Tesco, and Aldi are blaming the lack of drivers for some shortages on shelves. A spokesperson from Lidl recently stated, “Unfortunately, like a number of other retailers, the availability of some products has been impacted by the current disruptions to supply chain networks. We apologise for any inconvenience this may cause and are doing all we can to resolve the issues as soon as possible and to minimise any impact to our customers”. Hundreds of lorries are currently sitting idle, unable to service the UK’s desperate logistics sector. According to Dan Gray, commercial director of Willmotts Transport, EU drivers have simply not returned since Brexit; “Since the effects of Brexit, they haven’t wanted to come back…they can earn just as much in Germany, France or Poland, so there’s no real need to be in the UK”.
David Wells, the chief executive of Logistics UK, believes that the logistics sector has already adapted to considerable changes in the past year; “Before the pandemic, the sector was already operating in a changing context: driver shortages; new rules because of the exit from the EU; and adapting freight to deliver a cleaner, greener future. Covid-19 has not meant these factors have gone away, but it has accelerated them and made responding to them more complex. The performance of our economy is dependent on sufficient and efficient logistics. But this is not possible without skilled staff…Driver vacancies and the shortage of skills to support the wider industry are the biggest challenges we currently face”.
What Is The Government Proposing To Do To Resolve The Lorry Driver Shortage?
In recent days, suggestions of a visa for lorry drivers have been circulating. While the Home Office deny they intend to create a new visa, the Government appears to be considering such measures. This may be in response to a letter sent by the Road Haulage Association to the Prime Minister on 23rd June 2021, urging him to take action. The letter was written on behalf of many major stakeholders, including the Food and Drink Federation and the UK’s largest logistics firms and stated, “It is our collective view that there has never been a more challenging time for this industry, and we urge you to take these decisive steps to ensure that we can continue to maintain the UK’s integrated and finely balanced supply chains”.
It is more likely that rather than implementing a new scheme, lorry drivers will simply be added to the shortage occupation list. There are no details on a possible visa yet, but it is unlikely that this in itself will be enough to resolve the issue faced by the logistics sector. Either way, changing the immigration rules to allow overseas lorry drivers to work in the UK very much goes against the preference of the Government to rely on domestic workers. If this is their intention, it is likely that more investment in training will be needed to encourage UK based drivers to work in the logistics sector. In addition, pay and conditions will need to be improved considerably, recognising that lorry drivers are not low-skilled and they play a vital role in enabling our economy. As such, any change to the visa system to accommodate overseas drivers coming to the UK may only be very short-term, but nevertheless, necessary.
Alex Veitch, general manager of public policy at the industry body Logistics UK, says that the Government should not be tempted to resolve this issue by allowing drivers to work more hours; “Extending lorry drivers’ hours, as the government is doing, is a bad idea. Tired drivers don’t make better drivers or safer roads”.
It is likely that the Government will bow to pressure to soften its immigration stance to enable more foreign lorry drivers to come to the UK, but this is not going to be sufficient to resolve this problem. More needs to be done to shore up the logistics sector to recognise its vital importance to the UK as a whole, including investment in technology, training, and infrastructure and making lorry driving financially lucrative. We will keep you up to date with developments as they occur.