Wednesday, July 7, 2021

Government Shows Lack of Comprehension Once Again When Faced with Road Haulage Problems

Insufficient HGV Drivers? Just Let Them Break the Rules and Work Longer Hours!
Shipping News Feature

UK – So the government's magic bullet to resolve the chronic shortage of commercial vehicle drivers in the country is to let them work longer hours! Ignoring the obvious safety ramifications (what was a serious offence last week is to be praised this) how the devil is this a solution?

That is the general assessment of reactions from the road haulage industry to the government statement today, with the industry related associations and vehicle operators of every hue lining up to criticise the statement from transport minister Baroness Vere announcing a ‘relaxation’ of the driving hours rules via her Twitter account. The statement, staggering in its simplicity and lack of comprehension, said:

"We're temporarily extending drivers' hours rules from Mon 12 July to allow HGV drivers to make slightly longer journeys where necessary, as we're aware of a current shortage of drivers. Driver safety must not be compromised and operators must notify DfT (Department for Transport) if this relaxation is used."

Condemnation is universal, The chief executive of the Road Haulage Association (RHA) Richard Burnett who joined last month with dozens of other industry leaders in writing to the Prime Minister illustrated the impossibility of maintaining safety standards whilst costs would rise as wages inevitably went up as firms sought qualified staff to maintain standards. He said:

"We oppose wholesale extensions to drivers' hours as we believe they can be counter-productive by making the job less attractive. Loading more hours on to drivers that are already exhausted is not the answer, the problem needs more than just a sticking plaster.

"Ministers should be mindful that road safety is the reason HGV drivers' hours are limited. Relaxing them should only be used as a last resort to resolve short-term issues that cannot be addressed in other ways."

Logistics UK expressed ‘dismay’ at the announcement saying it simply heaped more pressure on those operating in an already stretched environment, with James Firth, the organisation’s Head of Road Freight Regulation Policy, commenting:

“Government has ignored the industry in deciding to relax these road safety laws, and it will be the hard-pressed HGV drivers on our roads who have to carry the burden. Throughout the pandemic, the UK’s professional drivers have kept our shops, homes and businesses supplied with everything needed to keep the economy going, but the current workforce cannot be expected to fill the gaps created by the current skills shortage.

”The road freight industry vehemently opposed the extension of these vital road safety laws, yet the government has ignored the will of those who will be most affected by the changes. The logistics sector has been experiencing a significant shortage of drivers for a number of years, but this situation has been exacerbated by factors including the Covid-19 pandemic and Brexit, which has seen many EU workers return to their home countries.

”The industry needs a longer-term solution to the recruitment of drivers, including temporary visas for EU workers to cover the gaps while new recruits can be trained, and interest free loans for those wishing to enter the market, not a stop-gap measure that will heap more pressure on existing workers. The relaxation of drivers hours should only be used in an emergency situation, when a foreseeable end date can be identified, or is the government suggesting that the current shortage of drivers will be resolved by 8 August?”

“Existing drivers have been working flat out since the start of the pandemic, and this could be the final straw for many of them. Instead of trying to paper over the gaps, government should be working with industry to produce a plan to support moving drivers through the current bottleneck of HGV driving tests and support potential new entrants to the industry with the expensive process of acquiring a professional driving licence.

”Industry met with Transport and Work & Pensions ministers to discuss the situation on 16 June but no plan has been forthcoming to date, extending working hours is untenable and not the solution to the wider issue. Logistics businesses need and deserve answers, not wallpapering over the problem!”

Before the pandemic and Brexit, logistics was already experiencing a shortage of around 76,000 drivers, and Logistics UK now estimates the shortfall to be approximately 90,000 workers and the seriousness of the situation was not lost on Rob Wright, executive director of international supply chain and logistics consultancy SCALA, who said on hearing the news:

“Driver shortages are a problem the government should have foreseen, given that there has been a UK driver shortage for more than 10 years, largely filled by EU and Eastern European drivers. Nearly 10% of all UK workers work in logistics, a growing sector which is vitally important to the UK economy, as was particularly the case during the past year’s enforced lockdowns. This shortage is an early test of the government post-Brexit immigration policies, which prioritise high-skilled immigration as there are significant doubts that domestic recruitment could fill the gaps in the short term.

“The long-term solution is multi-faceted, with short-term solutions such as removing constraints on driver hours, which were introduced for very good health and safety reasons, a backwards step. We do not want tired drivers of heavy goods vehicles on our roads. Instead, we need major investment in driver training to address the backlog caused by 28,000 cancelled HGV driving tests during Covid-19.

“We must also do more to address the distinct lack of women drivers (around 5% of HGV drivers are women). While historically driving could be very physical work, vehicles no longer require the physical effort of the past, with mechanisation and automation having greatly reduced the physical loading and unloading elements.”

”Funding is also required to promote logistics as a more attractive career choice, particularly with appropriate pay and benefits given many drivers have to work unsociable hours, including nights away spent sleeping in cabs, for longer journeys."

And what of more government funding? Transport secretary Grant Shapps seemed to be at his elusive and obfuscating best when he intimated he ‘has not ruled out’ additional help for the industry as well as increasing the number of driving tests.