When Helen Wang’s Abakus Foods is ready to ship its seaweed crisps -- stocked in the likes of J Sainsbury Plc and Asda -she calls up a haulier.
Usually, a vehicle arrives the same day to collect the goods from her base in northeast London. But, recently, there has been a problem: a national shortage of lorry drivers means deliveries are facing delays of multiple days. “
“It’s a struggle every time,” said Helen, who has had to pay 3,000 pounds monthly to rent extra storage space for goods that haven’t been collected. “It’s meant a lot of headache and tension.”
Her experience describes what many companies across Great Britain are currently experiencing: a shortage of drivers, powered by Brexit and Covid, is increasing the delivery prices and leading to empty shelves in stores.
This is just a piece of a much bigger change in the UK since Boris Johnson managed to take the country out of the EU. Many industries, such as health care and hospitality are struggling due to the reduction of the workforce.
The shortage is already affecting multiple sectors in the UK, having ripple effects throughout the UK economy. Fresh fruit, vegetables, and milk are going to waste due to canceled or delayed deliveries, according to Tom Bradshaw, vice president of the National Farmers’ Union. And the country’s biggest supermarkets are beginning to see gaps in their offerings due to goods not arriving at their stores.
“While we might not always have the exact product a customer is looking for, we’re delivering more products to stores every day and we are confident customers will find a suitable alternative,” Sainsbury said in a statement. In June, Tesco Plc CEO Ken Murphy said the company is working “exceptionally hard” to manage the driver shortage.
The drivers’ shortage represents the result of an aging workforce, the high cost of training new drivers, and the industry’s low margins, and has been an old issue in the UK. However, by adding both Brexit and Covid, the issue became a real crisis. If in 2020, there were 76,000 fewer drivers than needed, now there are 90,000, according to Logistics U.K.
“It’s close to a perfect storm,” declared Ian Baxter, chairman of Baxter Freight, a Nottingham-based transport firm that moves goods for FTSE-100 companies. Based on his statement, the pandemic has disrupted training courses for new drivers, while the additional customs checks implemented by Brexit have delayed drivers making deliveries.“The supply of vehicles is extremely tight,” Baxter said. Prices for same-day deliveries have gone up by as much as 30%, he added.
For Johnson’s government, the driver shortage is one of the first big tests post Brexit – however, the industry has not been impressed with the solutions offered so far.
The companies within the industry asked the government several times to offer temporary visas to foreign drivers, however, the government rejected this option, as one of Boris Johnson’s main goals by leaving the EU is to control the migration.
“We have no plans to introduce a short-term visa for HGV drivers,” the Department for Transport said in a statement. “Employers should invest in our domestic workforce instead of relying on labor from abroad.”
The DfT has said it will provide additional testing capacity so more people can become qualified and will provide more funding to train drivers. Also, the department said it will also introduce a package of measures, including more official parking spaces, to improve working conditions in the industry.
The government is also relaxing rules limiting the hours truckers can drive each day. Previously drivers had to stop after nine hours, now this has been extended to 10. But the industry doesn’t appreciate this solution, considering it has a low-impact fix that threatens driver safety.
“Tired drivers do not make better drivers,” said Rod McKenzie, managing director of public policy at the Road Haulage Association. “It’s an incredibly short-sighted decision.”
Increasing wages in the industry could be a good solution. Before the pandemic, a driver could earn about 32,000 pounds a year. Drivers hired through agencies can now expect to earn more than 40,000 pounds, a figure that is set to rise further as the shortage worsens, according to Kieran Smith, chief executive officer of Driver Require, a specialist driver recruitment agency.
The best option in this situation, as per Mr. Smith’s statement, would be to encourage already-licensed lorry drivers in the U.K. who have found work in other industries to get behind the wheel again. There are about 300,000 qualified drivers who fit this profile, and many could be tempted back with better pay and working conditions, he said.
For Hubert Zanier, managing director of Kipferl, a London-based cafe that delivers Austrian delicacies like sachertorte across the U.K., a solution to the shortage can’t come soon enough. He complains he has been disappointed by drivers not showing up to collect consignments or failing to deliver them. “We have a real problem in this country,” Zanier said. “Delivery is getting more and more a real nightmare.”
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