Will the Relaxing of Rules for EU Lorry Drivers Resolve the Current Shortage?
The UK press is currently in full horror mode with endless stories about empty supermarket shelves, the possible shortage of toys for Christmas, and the panic buying of petrol and diesel. The government, for their part, have tried to reassure the public and urge people not to panic-buy fuel, but so far, there appears to be little in the way of solid action which will undo the problems we are now seeing. One reason for the current shortage of lorry drivers is Brexit, which caused many EU lorry drivers to make a permanent one-way trip across the channel. Another is the lack of investment in the skills and training needed. The government has now agreed to soften the visa requirements for EU lorry drivers, but is this effectively too little too late? In this article, we will look at the latest on the lorry driver shortage and whether the UK government’s relaxation of visa rules will encourage EU lorry drivers back to the UK.
Pressure built on the government over late Summer/early Autumn 2021
Despite repeated calls from business leaders across the food chain and logistics sector for action by the government to resolve the looming lorry driver shortage during Summer 2021, at the end of August, the government pushed back. They stated, “We want to see employers make long-term investments in the UK domestic workforce instead of relying on labour from abroad, and our Plan for Jobs is helping people across the country retrain, build new skills and get back into work”. This position changed, however, at the end of September 2021 due to ongoing shortages and rising concerns. Tesco, despite offering £1,000 bonuses to drivers, warned it has a shortfall of over 800 drivers. Most other supermarkets have issued similar warnings, and there have even been reports of company staff lurking around ‘greasy spoons’ trying to lure lorry drivers to work for their employer in return for high rates of pay of up to £100,000 and a ‘golden hello’.
The boss of Iceland, Richard Walker, has pointed out that it will take time to resolve this issue, even if local drivers are enticed into the sector; he stated, “Longer term, we need to recruit UK drivers, and I hope that will happen, but that will take six [to] nine months to get them trained up and we have Christmas to worry about before then”.
Temporary EU lorry driver visa scheme to run until Christmas Eve
The government bowed to pressure in late September 2021, agreeing to put in place a relaxation on visas for EU lorry drivers. Specifically, the plan is to put in place 5,000 visas. The fly in the ointment is that the relaxation of rules has only been put in place until Christmas Eve 2021.
What has been the response to the visa relaxation for EU lorry drivers?
It is fair to say that the response to the EU lorry driver visa relaxation has not been universally positive. One Polish driver speaking from Warsaw, as reported in the Independent, said, “No thank you, Mr Prime Minister, I will not take advantage of this opportunity. No drivers want to move for only three months just to make it easier for the British to organise their holidays”. Marco Digioia, the head of the European Road Haulers Association, believes there is an EU wide issue with the supply of lorry drivers and that wages and conditions for drivers in the UK are generally lower than on the continent. He told the Guardian that the EU had pumped billions into better facilities for lorry drivers and “The UK doesn’t have access to any of that…Tempting European drivers back to the UK when they also have to face the reality of customs and border checks, all the uncertainties of Brexit … We have to be realistic”.
Will the government invoke Operation Escalin?
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps has suggested that the government might consider bringing in the military to drive heavy goods vehicles around the UK. Shapps stated on BBC Breakfast, “With regards to things like whether there’s a role for the military, obviously if there is, if that can actually help, we will bring them in….There will be technicalities as to whether they can immediately switch over to commercial trucks and so on, there could be other roles for them, such as in driver testing and training. I am ruling nothing out”. So advanced is this plan, it even has a name; ‘Operation Escalin’. But, according to the Times UK, this will only be put in place if the situation “deteriorates significantly”.
It has been widely reported that the current shortage of lorry drivers may last for some time yet; years potentially. In reality, with a solid strategy in place, there is every reason to hope that the issue will resolve in 2022. A multi-pronged approach will likely be needed with increased investment in training, improved wages and conditions, and removal of administrative headaches for drivers crossing to Northern Ireland and into the EU (and vice versa). It may also be prudent to add lorry drivers to the shortage occupation list in the long term to allow overseas lorry drivers to come to the UK. Much also needs to be done to repair the reputation of the UK as a place that welcomes overseas labour. With the wages and conditions improving for EU lorry drivers across the continent, from East to West, the UK will have a great deal to do to encourage drivers back here. Ultimately, the days of easily available labour from the EU, especially lorry drivers, may have gone for good.