Richard Walker

Christmas is at risk unless the Government acts NOW to ease the HGV driver shortage

The country is in the midst of a very real crisis that is getting worse every day – and it’s one that the Government could easily help to resolve with a simple rule change. Yet ministers bafflingly refuse to act.

Nationwide, the UK is currently short of at least 100,000 HGV drivers – the truckers we all rely on to keep us supplied with our food and other daily needs.

This is due to a combination of factors, including our historic failure to value this essential work correctly, but the largest single challenge is this: while everyone else can clearly see that we have a massive shortage of HGV drivers in the UK, the Government refuses to acknowledge the problem and classify them as ‘skilled workers’ for immigration purposes.

Ballet dancers, orchestral musicians and artists, yes: the Westminster bubble deems these jobs as essential and they are on the exempt list. Truck drivers: no.

I’m a big fan of culture myself, but I can’t help feeling that getting food on our tables really ought to take priority here.

At Iceland, we have 1,000 stores supplied by six big distribution depots. We currently have 100 fewer drivers than we need. We’ve reduced the frequency of our scheduled deliveries to stores by 15%, but are still having to cancel 250 store deliveries a week.

For small stores like ours, with limited back-up stocks, a missed delivery quickly results in gaps on the shelves.

What’s more, this is the first time we have had to cancel store deliveries during the whole of the pandemic. In fact we were able to increase deliveries to help meet the rise in consumer demand before and during the first lockdown last year.

All our suppliers face the same issues, too, so every day we are missing around 10% of the stock we have ordered into our depots. And this is a problem that is getting worse rather than better day by day. Ironically as we and other food retailers have raised our pay rates to ease our own driver shortages, we have worsened the problem for suppliers. We are all fishing in the same inadequately stocked pond.

When things were at their worst Warburtons – our sole bread supplier, who deliver directly to our stores – were unable to supply up to 130 stores a day, and this supply chain failure meant bread shortages for other local retailers as well as Iceland.

If the Government acted today – as they should – and added HGV drivers to the ‘skilled worker’ list to ease immigration, it would still take four to six weeks to get a driver working at one of our depots by the time they had completed the necessary paperwork, done the mandatory PCR tests, quarantined if required, found a place to live, and been recruited.

I’m still kept awake by the scenes of panic buying in March 2020 – and the longer the Government leaves it to take action, the worse the current crisis is going to get and the bigger the gaps on the shelves we will see as consumer demand ramps up in the run-up to Christmas.

After the ‘lost Christmas’ of 2020, this year we may hope to be allowed larger family gatherings – but our ability to enjoy them looks like being very much at risk from food shortages.

In case you’re tempted to blame Brexit – and those like me who voted for it – I should say that I was always a strongly pro-immigration Brexiteer, looking to broaden our horizons globally beyond Fortress Europe.

What we are seeing is not an inevitable consequence of Brexit – far from it –  but a self-inflicted wound caused by the Government’s failure to appreciate the importance of HGV drivers and the work they do for us.

These heroes worked ceaselessly and hard criss-crossing the country to ensure that we were supplied and fed through successive lockdowns  – just like the people who stayed at their posts to keep all the UK’s supermarkets open – while the majority of the population worked from home. Of course HGV drivers are ‘skilled workers’ and should be recognised and valued as such.

Longer term, we need to encourage more young people to train as HGV drivers in the UK. Amazingly, the average age of a British truck driver is currently over 55.

A job that comfortably pays £40,000 per year – nearly 30% above average earnings – should appeal to many. That it clearly doesn’t is a reflection on the lack of respect we show to those playing this vital role in our society.

Iceland’s logistics partner is doing its best, setting up a driving school to train new Class 1 HGV drivers. Class 1 covers the big articulated lorries that are the mainstay of food deliveries. The barrier here is that, thanks to Covid, there is currently a six month wait for trained drivers to get a test to prove their qualifications. The Government has recently acted to make more Class 1 and Class 2 HGV tests available before Christmas – though not until November.

At some of our depots we’ve started using more Class 2 drivers, qualified only to drive smaller and more rigid lorries. This means smaller loads, more trucks on the road and more emissions, so it’s bad for stores, customers, and the environment. But desperate times clearly demand desperate measures.

Just how desperate things are can be seen from the rates that self-employed Class 1 truckers with their own vehicles are currently able to demand for their services: £950 per 10 hour shift with a guaranteed working week and a minimum 26 week contract. That’s around £250,000 a year. Even a junior banker might start to feel tempted.

The Government has shown some willingness to relax the limits on drivers’ working hours, but the unions rightly oppose this as tired drivers are ultimately going to be a danger to themselves and other road users.

Oh, and Government spinners have suggested that they might be willing to draft in 2,000 Army truck drivers to help keep stores supplied. That won’t make much of an impact on a 100,000 driver shortage and I’m not convinced that the skills required to drive a lorry to the battlefield are necessarily the same as those needed to move supplies from depots to a series of shops.

It’s not as though we haven’t tried really hard to make the Government sit up and take notice of the HGV driver shortage, and its implications.  I wrote weeks ago to a number of Government departments warning them of this escalating problem, but I haven’t received any replies.

The fact is that we and everyone else in the retail, manufacturing and transport industries have been banging on about this burgeoning crisis for many weeks now, and the Government has shown every sign of being deaf to reason on the key issue of immigration controls.

They need to wake up now, and do the right thing, or we’ll all be spending a very far from merry Christmas.

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