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 is suffering from 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.

In recent years, the movement of goods in the UK has relied upon foreign drivers (in addition to those based in the UK) 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 which has led to the acute 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 that are hindering recruitment.

It is estimated by the Road Haulage Association that there is a shortage of up to 100,000 lorry drivers in the UK.

In July, the UK Government engaged in emergency meetings with retailers, logistics groups and wholesalers in an attempt to find a solution before the situation could worsen and potentially lead 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 of the UK Government was that the rules regarding the length of time that lorry drivers can work would be relaxed as a temporary fix for the extreme shortage of qualified heavy goods vehicle operators.

Prior to the change in rules, lorry drivers were 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) were 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 9 hours per day, which can be increased to 10 hours only twice a week. However, the rules were temporarily relaxed so that this limit was increased to 10 hours per day and, additionally, drivers could alter their weekly rest patterns. Transport Secretary Grant Shapps originally announced that the new rules would apply from 12 July to 8 August 2021 – however, this has now been extended until 3 October 2021.

This was and 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 stated their concerns with the new rules, claiming that the relaxing of hours would 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.

Later in July, the Government unveiled a further package of measures to tackle HGV driver shortages. The package included launching a consultation regarding the possibility of allowing drivers to take one test to drive both articulated and rigid lorries. Additionally, the consultation considered whether off-road manoeuvres could be assessed as part of the HGV driving test and whether specific car and trailer tests are required. The intention behind the consultation is to allow a significant increase in the number of HGV driving tests to be conducted while still maintaining road safety standards.

Furthermore, the Government has committed to addressing the poor working conditions for drivers in the road haulage sector as this is an essential step in addressing the shortage. The Government says that it will work alongside the industry to support more official parking spaces for lorry drivers and look at ways to improve the standards of lorry parks. Indeed, the chronic lack of safe and secure parking spaces for vehicles means that HGV drivers are often forced to sleep in their lorries.

These changes made by the Government are welcome measures as the pressure on retailers and manufacturers has only increased as the UK has reopened and there are fears that the potential shortages in supermarkets could result in a return of the panic buying and stockpiling behaviour as seen at the beginning of the COVID pandemic in March 2020.

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This article was co-written by Clare Tuohy.