Friday 3 December 2021

Government acts to ease escalating truck driver crisis

The UK government stepped up a multi-departmental effort to help mitigate the HGV driver shortage late last month, amidst a context of continued supply chain chaos, and growing public anger in the wake of a national run on fuel that saw the army readied to step in and drive petrol tankers.

As Transport Operator prepared its October print edition for press, ministers pointed to signs of stabilisation in the fuel supply chain, insisting there was no shortage of fuel in the UK. Rather, a shortage of drivers to operate fuel tankers exacerbated by a surge in demand for petrol had seen many filling stations run low or empty.

Among the government’s headline measures to address the wider distribution logjam was the announcement that 5,000 temporary HGV driver visas would be made available for foreign workers, to provide short-term relief for fuel and food distribution in the approach to Christmas.

But the U-turn was deemed inadequate by many in an industry facing a shortfall widely cited to be as much as 20 times that figure. Trade groups expressed concern that visas only valid until 24 December would barely merit foreign drivers’ effort.

Rod McKenzie of the Road Haulage Association remarked: “They will see an advert tomorrow if they are lucky, they’ll apply for the job, they will need to find somewhere to live in Britain, assuming they get a visa, and then they will have to hand their notice in wherever they are working now… 12 weeks suddenly becomes 10 weeks, becomes eight weeks and then becomes ‘crikey, is it worth it?’”

Elizabeth de Jong of Logistics UK said: “Our fear is that it is very unlikely that a two-month visa will attract EU drivers which would make the scheme impotent.”

In the wake of such criticisms, the government announced further concessions shortly before this edition closed for print, which will allow the 4,700 visas intended for food haulage drivers to last until the end of February 2022, rather than until Christmas as had originally been intended. Meanwhile, it was reported that 300 visas would be issued to foreign fuel hauliers with immediate effect, which would be valid until the end of March.

In a statement on a package of support measures made in late September, the government said that UK Visas & Immigration was preparing to process the required applications in a timely manner, but added: “We want to see employers make long term investments in the UK domestic workforce instead of relying on labour to build a high-wage, high-skill economy.

“Visas will not be the long-term solution, and reform within the industry is vital.”

Among other government measures, Ministry of Defence driving examiners are being deployed to work alongside DVSA colleagues in delivering ‘thousands’ of extra truck driving tests over a 12-week period. This will contribute to clearing the significant backlog in the short-term while the DVSA recruits and trains additional examiners.

Earlier in September, the Department for Transport (DfT) had also confirmed plans to make up to 50,000 extra HGV driving tests available annually by simplifying the current testing regime, including by separating out manoeuvring elements of the test, and removing the need for a separate rigid test prior to an artic test, prompting safety concerns in some quarters.

Delegated examiners for the MoD and emergency services will be able to test candidates from one another’s organisations – while up to £10 million is to be invested by the Department for Education in ‘Skills Bootcamps’ to train as many as 3,000 more HGV drivers.

The government said it would also provide funding for both medical and HGV licences for adults completing HGV driving qualifications via the adult education budget in the academic year 2021/22. Previously, those taking this route had to pay for their own licences. The move will be backdated, and applied to those who commenced such qualifications on or after 1 August this year.

Meanwhile, the DfT set about mailing nearly one million LGV licence-holders with a letter thanking current drivers “for the vital service you have provided during the Covid-19 response and the incredibly important role you continue to play”, and inviting those currently not working as truck drivers to return to the industry.

Co-signed by the roads minister Baroness Vere and the chief executives of the RHA and Logistics UK, the letter states: “Your valuable skills and experience have never been more needed than they are now.”

It goes on to highlight the “fantastic HGV driving opportunities in the logistics industry”, adding that “conditions of employment and pay have been approving across the sector”, with “more options for flexible working, fixed hours, fixed days, full-time and part-time”.

“Many employers are offering training packages so even if your Driver CPC has lapsed, you can be supported in updating this through classroom or online courses,” the letter continues.

“Furthermore, given the significant number of opportunities available, driving can become an entry point into a much wider pool of job roles. Businesses of all sizes, in many different sectors, including specialist operators, are looking for drivers. There has never been a better time to find the type of HGV driving job you want.”

Elsewhere, Ricky Clarke, who had been prevented from returning to work as a truck driver by industrial action at DVLA’s Swansea office (Transport Operator 100), reports that he has given up waiting to have his medical form processed, and has gone back to taxi driving.

He is just one of many former truck drivers who let their medicals expire after leaving the industry due to poor wages and conditions, and whose return to the sector has been hampered by delays caused by strikes.

The Public & Commercial Services Union had been paying strikers £40 a day. It said in a statement in the summer that the drivers’ medical section at Swansea “was chosen due to its strategic importance to the agency and the fact that ministers are assigning huge importance to the backlogs in this area”.

“Our action to date has had a huge impact on the backlogs at the DVLA,” it added.

Last month the Green Party MP Caroline Lucas tabled a written parliamentary question asking DfT how long the backlog was at the DVLA for HGV licence applications, and what assessment had been made “of the adequacy of staff resources available to tackle application delays”.

The transport minister Trudy Harrison replied: “On 22 September, there were 56,144 applications for vocational driving licences awaiting processing. These are a mix of first applications for a provisional vocational licence and renewals and include those applying for entitlement to drive both HGVs and buses…

“The DVLA is prioritising applications for provisional vocational licences so these drivers can take their training quickly. Applications for provisional vocational licences are currently being processed within around 10 days of receipt. It is important to note that the majority of those applying to renew their vocational licence will be able to continue to drive while their application is being processed.”

The minister added that DVLA continued to “explore opportunities” to reduce turn-around times for paper applications; extra staff had been recruited and the agency was seeking additional office space to house more personnel.

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