At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, heavy goods vehicle (HGV) drivers were named key workers, and their regulated working hours were temporarily extended so that essential goods could continue to reach those who needed them. Further relaxations were recently announced but that clearly isn’t a solution to this deepening issue.
The haulage industry is, and has always been, a cornerstone of the economy. Now, a significant driver shortage threatens to overshadow our recovery.
Recent estimates suggest that there is a current shortage of 100,000 HGV drivers on our roads. As large parts of the economy shut down last year and travel became increasingly restricted, many European drivers returned home, and have not come back. In addition, the pandemic has resulted in a significant backlog in HGV driver tests, preventing many potential new recruits from getting started.
However, the situation cannot be entirely blamed on the pandemic; even before the crisis struck, the shortage was estimated at 60,000. Brexit is another reason for the mass exodus of European drivers, with the additional paperwork required to enter and leave the country resulting in many deciding to work elsewhere. Not to mention the fact that the driver population is getting older – with an average age of 55 – and too few younger workers are stepping in to replace them.
A package of measures
On 20 July, the government sent an open letter to the industry in which it outlined various measures to increase driver recruitment and retention and to ease pressure on the industry.
Firstly, it aims to increase the weekly number of HGV driver’s licences issued by the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency (DVSA) from 1,500 to 2,000. There is also to be additional support for driver training schemes – both via apprenticeships and a new HGV driver training scheme from the Department for Work and Pensions.
Meanwhile, driver retention efforts will centre on working with the industry to improve the quantity and quality of overnight facilities and access to facilities during the day.
Transport Secretary Grant Schapps commented: “I understand the challenges faced by drivers and operators right now and while longer-term solutions must be led first and foremost by industry leaders, today we are saying this government is here to help.”
He continued: “This set of measures will kickstart that help, easing pressure on the sector as we work together to attract new drivers, improve conditions and ensure the industry’s future is a prosperous one.”
The measures come in addition to the extended relaxation of drivers’ hours from 9 August to 3 October 2021, which “reflects the exceptional circumstances arising from the cumulative impacts of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and an acute shortage of drivers of heavy goods vehicles, which adversely affect the carriage of goods by road, causing acute supply chain pressures.”
A new consultation
On 10 August, the government launched a consultation seeking views on proposed changes to HGV and bus driver tests. The proposals aim to free up examiner capacity and streamlining processes needed to increase the speed at which drivers can gain their license. They include:
- Allowing drivers to take a single test to drive both rigid and articulated lorries, rather than a test for each – it is estimated that this would free up 20,000 additional test slots;
- Allowing drivers who want to use a bus or coach to tow a trailer to take a single test with a trailer, rather than one with and one without;
- Allowing the off-road manoeuvres part of the test to be assessed by driving instructors;
- Allowing car drivers to tow a trailer without having to take another test.
In her foreword, Baroness Vere of Norbiton, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Transport, commented: “Those that wish to make vocational driving their career need to feel confident that the processes involved in qualifying for a licence support rather than hinder. In doing so we understand the need to maintain the professional standard of our vocational drivers ensuring the safety of all our road users and the proposals set out how we feel we can best achieve this while looking towards a more innovative way in which we can test our drivers.”