The perfect storm of Brexit and the COVID-19 pandemic has had a drastic impact on virtually every industry sector in the UK, with new challenges to navigate arising all the time. It is well known that one of the areas hit hardest by the pandemic and Brexit has been transport and the haulage of goods to and from the UK, and the result is that this sector has seen a severe shortage of lorry drivers. This shortage has caused many manufacturers and retailers throughout the UK and Europe to face difficulties managing supply and demand.
The most recent company to be affected is confectionery giant Haribo, who last week informed UK shopkeepers that it was struggling to meet delivery deadlines, although we have yet to see the panic-buying of gummy bears!
In recent years, lorry driving in the UK has been dominated by foreign drivers and the COVID-19 pandemic prompted many foreign workers to return home during lockdown. Subsequently, the new immigration controls implemented after Brexit concerning settled status made it difficult for these workers to return to the UK, leading to staff shortages in logistics and other sectors such as construction and hospitality. The haulage industry has also highlighted changes to the tax treatment of drivers’ pay are damaging recruitment.
It is estimated by the Road Haulage Association that there is a shortage of up to 100,000 lorry drivers in the UK.
Last week, the UK Government engaged in emergency meetings with retailers, logistics groups and wholesalers in an attempt to find a solution before the situation worsens and potentially leads to gaps on supermarket shelves. A number of potential solutions were considered in these talks, such as increasing capacity for HGV driving tests and enhancing training to help bring in new local drivers.
The most immediate decision made by the UK Government was that the rules regarding the length of time that lorry drivers can work will be relaxed as a temporary fix for the extreme shortage of qualified heavy goods vehicle operators.
Currently, lorry drivers are excluded from certain limits and entitlements to working which are set out in the Working Time Regulations 1998 (as amended). More specifically, lorry drivers (and other mobile workers in road traffic) are excluded from the regulations on the 48-hour maximum weekly limit, the eight-hour maximum limit on night work, and specific daily/weekly rest period limits. The limits on their working time are instead set out within the European Union, Directive 2002/15/EC. This states that lorry drivers must not drive more than nine hours per day, which can be increased to 10 hours only twice a week. However, the rules have been relaxed so that, temporarily, this limit will be increased to 10 hours per day and, additionally, drivers will be able to alter their weekly rest patterns.
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps announced that the rules will apply from Monday 12 July until 8 August 2021, and will be subject to review.
This is a controversial measure as the strict limit on driving hours is critical to ensure the safety of lorry drivers and other road users. Drivers and representatives of the industry have stated their concerns with the new rules, claiming that the relaxing of hours will not make any material difference to the shortage of drivers and that it would ultimately put further pressure on drivers who are already exhausted and overstretched. James Firth, from Logistics UK, a firm that represents freight businesses, suggested that this is merely a measure to paper over the gaps and that in reality, there is a need for future planning to support new drivers through HGV tests, thousands of which were postponed due to COVID-19 and the national lockdown, and to provide further incentives to join the profession.
There certainly is a need for urgent change to the sector in order to avoid serious supply problems. Indeed, there are fears that the pressure on retailers and manufacturers could mount further when the UK reopens fully in the weeks to come and that the potential shortages in supermarkets would result in a return of panic buying and stockpiling behaviour as was seen at the beginning of the Covid pandemic in March 2020.
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This article was co-written by Clare Tuohy.