British transport and logistics representatives are seeking to assure customers and the wider public that the UK supply chain is capable of overcoming the obstacles posed by Covid-19 – the new respiratory disease last week labelled a pandemic by world health experts – but have called for the support of both government and consumers to help fleets ensure shelves remained stocked.
Please note: this article was published on 20 March, and has not been updated. Please refer to gov.uk/coronavirus and trade association websites for the latest information and guidance.
The rapid spread of the novel coronavirus, for which more than 3,200 people in the UK had tested positive as of yesterday – 144 of whom had died – poses unprecedented challenges for the road transport sector and wider supply chain, as consumer stockpiling of staple foods and household goods causes a spike in demand for deliveries.
The heightened demand for haulage and distribution of essential goods comes in the context of rising staff shortages across the entire UK workforce as self-isolation and social distancing guidelines take effect, exacerbating specific existing shortfalls within the transport sector.
But the Freight Transport Association (FTA) has said the supply chain can be maintained – provided support and flexibility is forthcoming from government.
Branding the logistics sector “one of the UK’s most flexible and adaptable industries”, FTA policy director Elizabeth de Jong said it was used to dealing with extreme disruption owing to issues such as fuel shortages, employment strikes and environmental factors.
“Our members are working closely with customers to keep things moving, and the message is clear – there is plenty of everything the country needs to continue working and living, providing people do not panic-buy,” she said, in a plea to stockpiling consumers.
“Logistics operates a very lean business model, with deliveries made ‘just in time’ to keep prices as low as possible, but empty shelves does not mean that stock is not on its way.”
But the logistics industry’s vulnerability to the virus is likely to prove more acute than for many sectors, with the government’s preventative strategy of encouraging home-working clearly not an option for the thousands of drivers, warehouse operatives and workshop technicians keeping the UK’s distribution network rolling.
“There are particular challenges posed by the potential of illness and self-isolation of workers within the supply chain,” de Jong continued, “but our members are keen to reassure their customers that they will make every effort to ensure any disruption is minimised.”
She said: “Logistics is responsible for every item used in this country, from the food we eat to the manufacturing components industry relies upon and, as such, should be recognised as a critical emergency service and its workers given the same recognition as those working for the emergency services or in healthcare.
“It is vital that they have urgent access to healthcare, washing and toilet facilities and their children are able to attend school, so that the flow of goods can continue unchecked.”
The sector would also require government support for contingency plans to address driver shortages as a result of illness, she emphasised, as well as a lack of compliance testing resource to ensure operators can work “legally and effectively”.
She added: “There are still areas of ongoing regulation of our industry which require clarification, to ensure that businesses can continue to function efficiently and keep supplies moving.
“It is clear that we are facing unprecedented times, and additional financial support may be required for many businesses, particularly those that supply the tourism or hospitality sectors, in the very near future if the logistics sector is to survive.
“Logistics can cope with the challenges of the pandemic, providing everyone maintains a balanced and sensible response to the situation. Our members are well prepared to keep goods and materials flowing to all areas of the UK’s economy, providing a pragmatic approach is maintained.”
The Road Haulage Association (RHA) reiterated the point that staff essential to the UK’s supply chain such as warehouse operatives should be considered ‘key workers’, thus allowing their children or other dependents access to schooling facilities to lessen the absence burden on the sector.
Those involved in the distribution and delivery of food are already to be included as ‘key workers’ for this purpose, according to Department of Education advice published yesterday, as are: “those who will keep the air, water, road and rail passenger and freight transport modes operating during the Covid-19 response, including those working on transport systems through which supply chains pass.”
The RHA also highlighted the announcement of a one-year postponement of the IR35 tax reform, which it said would “ease pressure on many businesses and haulage contractors”.
Addressing members in an email briefing, RHA chief executive Richard Burnett said: “Here in the UK our industry is critical to maintain the flow of food, medicines and other essential goods and it’s vital that our wheels keep turning…
“Some operators will be experiencing artificial peaks in work, particularly those working in the food supply-chain. The reality is that the impact for others may be catastrophic – particularly for those involved in moving equipment for the sport and events industry – which has been decimated by cancellations…
“The measures announced last week to support UK’s businesses are not enough for our industry. We need immediate and direct intervention from government to ensure transport businesses survive.”
Burnett revealed that he had spoken to the transport secretary Grant Shapps to request “a radical package of measures from government”.
These included cashflow injections, enforced payment holidays, measures to protect employee wages to safeguard the driver workforce, postponement of the implementation of schemes such as clean air zones and the London Direct Vision Standard, and road fund licence reductions.
RHA also advocated the relaxation of tolls, fuel duty cuts, funded relief vehicles to replace those undergoing decontamination, and deferment of a variety of taxes.
The organisation offered fleets the opportunity to feed back their views on the situation, which it said could then be relayed anonymously by RHA to government, allowing it to “provide support where it’s needed the most”.
There are already clear signs that government is stepping up to assist the sector, with the announcement of temporary relaxations to the drivers’ hours regime for store deliveries for a 30-day period, in order to ensure food and other essentials are being replenished as quickly as possible.
The relaxation, which began on 18 March and is currently scheduled to end on 16 April, “applies solely to drivers involved in the supply of food and other essential products to supermarkets,” said the Department for Transport (DfT).
“This includes the movement of such goods from importers, manufactures and suppliers to distribution centres. It does not apply to drivers undertaking deliveries directly to consumers.”
Guidance on the changes, available for reference here, states that for applicable operations, the EU daily driving limit of 9 hours has been increased to 11 hours, while daily rest requirements have been reduced from 11 to 9 hours.
In addition, the weekly and fortnightly driving limits, normally 56 and 90 hours respectively, have been increased to 60 and 96 hours respectively; and daily breaks of 45 minutes can now be taken after 5.5 hours of driving, rather than the normal limit of 4.5.
Further relaxations, and various conditions, apply.
Said DfT: “The department wishes to make clear that driver safety must not be compromised. Drivers should not be expected to drive whilst tired – employers remain responsible for the health and safety of their employees and other road users…
“The drivers in question must note on the back of their tachograph charts or printouts the reasons why they are exceeding the normally permitted limits. This is usual practice in emergencies and is, of course, essential for enforcement purposes.
“The temporary relaxation of the rules described above reflects the exceptional circumstances stemming from the Covid-19 outbreak. The department wishes to emphasise that, as a general rule, we expect business to plan for and manage the risks of disruption to supply chains.”
Announcing the measure, Grant Shapps said: “We know supermarkets have seen unprecedented demand in light of Covid-19.
“We’re relaxing the GB drivers’ hours rules so that supermarkets can complete more home deliveries – which is especially important for vulnerable people at this time.”
But he added: “Driver welfare is of course key, and we will be working closely with employers to make sure the safety of their drivers and other people on the road is protected.”
The senior traffic commissioner Richard Turfitt has also taken action, with the publication of a new statutory document in response to the Covid-19 outbreak setting out the commissioners’ plan of action.
The document includes temporary steps designed to help operators struggling to meet required levels of financial standing; advice on what fleets should do if transport managers are unable to attend work; and guidance on the ‘period of grace’ process where O-licence requirements are not being met.
In addition, it features information on how traffic commissioners are approaching applications for temporary exemptions to the requirement for an O-licence, short notice requests for local bus service changes, and the attendance and postponement of hearings.
Meanwhile in the capital, where population density is causing particular challenges for stemming the spread of the virus, borough councils have suspended the London Lorry Control Scheme until the end of April, thereby allowing logistics firms to better serve supermarkets and other retailers – a move welcomed by FTA.
It follows the government’s announcement that it would work with local authorities to extend delivery hours to ensure shops remained stocked, which the organisation said was a “practical and sensible approach”.
Sally Gilson, head of skills policy at FTA, said that the ongoing concerns around lack of driver access to toilet facilities posed a particular problem in the current public health crisis.
“FTA is urging businesses to drop their bans on commercial drivers using their toilet facilities, following reports from FTA members that this is occurring across the nation,” she warned.
If drivers: “are unable to take the basic precautionary measure of keeping their hands clean – something recommended heavily by government – then they are more likely to succumb to the illness, and in turn, will no longer be able to keep supermarkets, schools and hospitals etc stocked with the goods required,” Gilson continued.
“Businesses within this industry are determined to keep the UK economy operating as normally as possible; we just ask for the support of businesses during this turbulent time.
“According to the Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations, the receivers of deliveries are required to play their part in the overall provision of basic facilities; we urge businesses to remember their legal obligations and provide drivers with sufficient toilet and washing facilities.”
Major industry trade events were cancelled, meanwhile, as the government issued advice to the effect that large gatherings should be avoided in a bid to curtail the virus’s spread.
Organisers of the Microlise Transport Conference and ITT Hub, which were scheduled to take place in May in Coventry and Farnborough respectively, announced earlier this week that the events would now not take place, but return in 2021.
Yesterday, Commercial Vehicle Show bosses announced that this year’s event, scheduled for the end of April at the NEC Birmingham, would also be cancelled.
“In light of the current Covid-19 pandemic together with guidance issued by the government… it is clear that the only realistic options for this year’s Show were cancellation or postponing to a later date,” said CV Show organisers.
“The option of postponing was given careful consideration given the importance of the Show to the road transport sector; however, it was felt there were too many unknown variables to make this option possible. As ever, our priority is to ensure the health and safety of all those involved with the Show.”
Truck manufacturers are feeling the effect of Covid-19, too, with both Scania and MAN announcing the closure of European production units.
Detailing production shutdowns at its plants in Sweden, France and the Netherlands, Scania cited component shortages and disruptions in the supply chain as a result of the disease’s spread across the continent as key reasons for the decision.
However, service workshops and parts centres would continue to operate, said president and CEO Henrik Henriksson. The firm said it was ‘in close dialogue’ with union representatives as regards the situation.
Henriksson added: “”The management and employee representatives both highly appreciate the state support measures that are now being made available in the countries where our staff now temporarily will lack work.”
Meanwhile, MAN Truck & Bus said it had been forced to temporarily halt production at its Munich site.
“MAN is constantly reassessing the situation and reacting accordingly,” said the firm, which also announced short-time working for its German locations from 23 March.
Production would also be scaled back at non-German plants, the firm said, adding: “MAN is doing everything in its power to maintain full operation of its sales and service locations worldwide as long as the overall situation allows, in order to secure supply chains.”
Among other manufacturers affected were Mercedes-Benz parent Daimler, which on Tuesday suspended all European production for an initial two-week period, including its commercial vehicle operation.
Vehicle inspection services were also being adversely affected by the pandemic, said trade groups, with the FTA reporting an increasing number of members struggling to book inspections with local garages due to staff shortages.
Tony Gibbs, general manager of FTA’s Vehicle Inspection Service, said: “The legal responsibility of logistics businesses to keep their fleets safe and compliant remains the same; these rules will not be relaxed during the Covid-19 pandemic.
“At FTA, we would like to reassure operators of commercial vehicles that our Vehicle Inspection Service (VIS) will remain operational throughout the pandemic and able to conduct inspections of the highest quality for businesses across the UK and Republic of Ireland.
“As small, local garages struggle to cope with the temporary loss of staff due to illness or self-isolation, our members have reported significant challenges in trying to book their regular vehicle inspections; we are here to help fill this shortfall.”
Yesterday, in a second email briefing to fleet operators, RHA chief executive Richard Burnett said: “Over the past 24 hours we have become aware that a vast number of testing facilities have been closed. The DVSA informs us that this situation will continue through [Thursday and Friday] due to staff shortages.
“We are working with the DfT and DVSA to invoke emergency measures, which will ensure commercial vehicles, now more essential than ever before, can continue to operate. We will update as soon as more information becomes available.”
FTA has launched a free coronavirus web portal, providing an overview of key information and advice for the industry, as well as details of the association’s Coronavirus Logistics Impact Survey, which it says will offer “an ongoing snapshot of confidence across the sector and highlight particular industry concerns”.
RHA has also launched a coronavirus updates page on its website, which includes details of revisions to legislation and guidance.