An extra 50,000 examinations will combat a lack of delivery drivers after one leading industry figure warned last night food shortages would fast become a “permanent problem” unless the Government acted. The shortfall of HGV drivers and of farm labour has been made worse by the pandemic and by staff returning to Europe. But No10 aides dismissed the idea of long-term shortages, insisting that the UK’s supply chain is “highly resilient”.
Industry groups want to see truckers added to the Shortage Occupation List to let in more drivers from overseas, including the EU.
An overhaul of licence applications and tests for would-be HGV drivers will permit up to 50,000 more examinations per year.
Officials said the Government is “changing previous EU regulations”. Truckers will need to pass just one test to drive both rigid and articulated lorries, rather than two examinations three weeks apart.
Tests will be shortened by removing the reversing exercise and, for vehicles with trailers, uncoupling and recoupling procedures.
The nationwide lack of HGV drivers is making some farmers pour away milk which cannot be transported.
Ian Wright, outgoing chief executive of the Food and Drink Federation, warned supply issues which have hit chains including Nando’s and McDonald’s are “going to get worse” as the labour market changes permanently post-Covid.
He said: “These shortages don’t mean you’re going to run out of food” but warned: “The UK shopper could have previously expected just about every product they want to be on shelf or in the restaurant all the time.
“That’s over and I don’t think it’s coming back. It’s going to get worse, and it’s not going to get better…any time soon. The result of the labour shortages is that the just-in-time system that has sustained supermarkets, convenience stores and restaurants – so the food has arrived on shelf or in the kitchen, just when you need it – is no longer working.”
His warning comes as the UK plans to slap post-Brexit checks on EU imports in two stages: October 1 and January 1.
The Government is reportedly set to delay them. Mr Wright said ministers might think, “If we start implementing these changes from the start of October, we might risk Christmas being cancelled for the second year running”.
Asked if celebrations will be axed, he told an event hosted by the Institute for Government: “No, but it’s going to be different.” Mr Wright said the lack of drivers was in part due to them switching to deliver for online retailers such Amazon and Tesco where jobs can have better hours and pay.
Some delivery staff have decided “not to go back to the rat race” after the pandemic, such as HGV drivers who therefore no longer have to get up at 4am.
Mr Wright added: “That’s a structural change that will not reverse itself”. The “farm to fork” supply chain is currently missing around 500,000 of its usual four million workers.
In a bid to ease the crisis before Christmas, car drivers will no longer need to take another test to tow a trailer or caravan, allowing around 30,000 more HGV driving tests every year.
Tests will be made shorter by removing the reversing exercise plus uncoupling and recoupling – and having that tested separately by a third party.It will also be made quicker to obtain a licence to drive an articulated vehicle, without first having to get one for a smaller vehicle – making around 20,000 more HGV driving tests available every year.
The Government hopes its moves will ramp up both driver testing and numbers, and help the sector attract drivers from across society.
Kate Gibbs, of the Road Haulage Association, said the group is calling for temporary visas that would allow hauliers to recruit drivers from across the world.
She said: “The driver shortage is now at a crisis point, with a shortfall of 100,000 drivers.
“And this shortage is now resulting in the failure of critical supply chains.
“This situation will only get worse if we do not have access to the global labour market in the short term.”
Wilfred Emmanuel-Jones, who runs the Black Farmer food range of farm-sourced products, is among producers who have been hit by driver shortages.
He said: “We are facing a perfect storm at the moment. A lot of the food manufacturers have been used to surviving on cheap labour from eastern European countries.
“Now that we’ve had Brexit that labour is not easily available to the industry. A lot of processors are operating at 60 per cent capacity due to a lack of staff. It isn’t a question of not having the produce – that is being buried back into the ground.
“On top of that is Covid. Lots of people who would have been taking their lorry driver training have been pushed out. Plus there’s the issue of lorries being driven around half-empty, which shouldn’t happen in our times of climate change.”