Major supermarket chains in Britain are offering cash bonuses for lorry drivers, as Brexit and the coronavirus pandemic leaves tens of thousands of jobs unfilled and shop shelves increasingly empty.
Industry warnings of crisis affecting supplies of everything from milk to sweets and tonic water have intensified, along with demands for the government to act fast or risk disruption leading up to Christmas.
“It’s a perfect storm,” Rob Hollyman, director of the haulage company North West Cargo, told AFP in an interview.
His company owns 160 trucks, but is struggling to fill up to 30 vacancies for drivers across its three depots in northwest England.
Nationwide, according to the Road Haulage Association (RHA), the shortfall runs to 100,000 lorry drivers — out of a total trucking workforce of 300,000.
Like many other UK hauliers, North West Cargo used to fill its cabs with drivers from eastern Europe. But Britain’s exit from the European Union and the introduction of onerous new visa rules triggered an exodus.
Meanwhile, an estimated 20,000 trainee British drivers are stuck in the pipeline, with the coronavirus pandemic causing a months-long backlog for licence tests.
And like other UK industries, road haulage is suffering a “pingdemic” caused by many drivers being told by a government app to self-isolate after coming into contact with someone who has tested positive for Covid-19.
“We have the work, but we don’t have the drivers to do that,” said Hollyman, who complained he is being outpriced by bigger operators as a bidding war opens up to entice new drivers.
“It’s a big issue. There is a limited number of drivers in this country and all that is happening is that resource is being pulled in one direction,” he said, referring to supermarket chains like Tesco.
Britain’s biggest grocer has announced starting bonuses of £1,000 ($1,390, 1,175 euros) to lure new recruits to operate its heavy goods vehicles (HGVs).
The John Lewis Partnership, which runs the Waitrose chain of supermarkets, says it will raise its HGV driver salaries by up to £5,000 to ensure it can offer “market competitive rates”.
– ‘Sticking plaster’ –
“We’re firefighting right now,” said Shane Brennan, chief executive of the Cold Chain Federation, a logistics association.
“We’re going to have interruptions on the shelves –- we’re resigned to that,” he said in The Guardian newspaper.
Arla Foods UK, the country’s biggest dairy supplier, was unable to deliver milk to 600 out of 2,400 stores in late July due to dwindling driver numbers.
“We are trying to avoid a summer of disruption,” managing director Ash Amirahmadi told BBC radio, urging the government to work with the industry “to recognise we are in a crisis and address the issue”.
The government has so far responded by temporarily extending the legal working day for HGV drivers by one hour to 10 hours.
But the RHA called the relaxation a “sticking plaster” and, like Logistics UK, an industry group, is urging Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his government to open up short-term work visas for EU truckers.
“There will definitely still be a shortage of drivers until the New Year simply because there is still a very long queue of people waiting to take a driving test,” Logistics UK’s general manager for public policy, Alex Veitch, told AFP.
“We do struggle in the sector to recruit younger people and so that was always something that was a worry.”
The average age of a British-born lorry driver is 50, according to Logistics UK, and in the first six months of 2020, 12,000 European drivers left the country altogether.
“We will have a difficult autumn,” Veitch predicted, amid warnings of potential shortfalls in the crucial Christmas period if retailers are forced to prioritise deliveries of basic necessities.
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said last month that “longer-term solutions must be led first and foremost by industry leaders”, as he announced a package of support including streamlined licence tests.