Minister warns UK’s ‘acute’ HGV driver shortage to last another year

The UK’s “acute” supply chain crisis caused in large part by a shortage of lorry drivers will continue until the end of next year because of bottlenecks in training new recruits, a transport minister has warned.

Baroness Charlotte Vere, under-secretary of state for transport, estimated that it would take until the end of next year to bolster the country’s heavy-goods vehicle driver workforce by 35,000 people and ease the “acute” logistics crisis.

“Trying to get a handle on exactly what the acute shortage of drivers are versus the long-term systemic shortage is tricky. We think it’s probably around 35,000,” she told a meeting of the House of Commons transport select committee.

“By the end of 2022, I expect . . . all being well, there should no longer be anything you can refer to as an acute crisis.”

The Road Haulage Association, a trade group, has estimated that the UK is short of 100,000 drivers, while Logistics UK calculates the shortage to be more than 70,000 drivers.

The RHA says there was a systemic shortage of 60,000 drivers before the pandemic, which was pushed up by European workers leaving the country because of Brexit, dropouts during the pandemic and a large testing backlog built up over eight months.

The lorry driver shortage has contributed to a supply chain crisis that has left gaps on supermarket shelves, backlogs at ports and threatens to delay the delivery of Christmas gifts.

At the start of his Budget speech, chancellor Rishi Sunak announced new funding to improve lorry park facilities, an extension of the suspension of the HGV road user levy until 2023 and freezing vehicle excise duty.

“Where the government can ease these pressures, we will act,” he said.

The big demand from Logistics UK, a trade association, ahead of the Budget was for the government to maintain a freeze on fuel duty, which Sunak announced would happen.

Those announcements complement a package of 25 government measures, including allowing longer working hours and tackling a large backlog of tests. Vere said that the Driver & Vehicle Standards Agency (DVSA) has been ramping up to 3,550 tests a week of vocational drivers, which include HGVs, buses and coaches, up from 1,500 before the pandemic.

But she added that the next bottleneck was emerging, as haulage companies race to train drivers quickly enough to get tests.

“The next challenge will be ‘will we have people to fill those slots?’,” she said, adding that 26,000 drivers leave the industry every year.

The government made a U-turn last month to introduce temporary visas for 5,000 foreign lorry drivers, as a stop-gap measure for the industry to cope with the seasonal boom in demand.

However, the measure has been criticised by the haulage industry as insufficient because only small numbers are allowed to enter the country and the visa is only valid for three months.

Vere criticised the RHA for not supporting certain measures such as allowing extended working hours, saying that “they just want lots of cheap EU labour. Anything that is not that, they aren’t particularly supportive of.”

The RHA said in response: “We are not and never have been in favour of unlimited immigration and have always said it is a short-term fix while we recruit and train a new generation of British truckers.”

MPs were also warned it will take more than a year to clear the backlog of learners waiting to sit a driving test.

The DVSA was working through a backlog of 500,000 people waiting for a test, roughly double the normal figure, said Peter Hearn, the body’s director of operations in the north.

He predicted it would take until early 2023 to clear the backlog, but said the DVSA had hired new staff and also looked at what private sector support might be needed to get on top of the waiting list.

“Clearly there have been some really difficult issues to overcome, he said.

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