But a combination of Covid, Brexit and other factors, means there aren’t enough drivers to meet demand.
A Bank of England report, covering April to June, also found that “transportation delays had resulted in shortages of some items, such as furniture, car parts and electrical goods”.
Severe shortages of materials for the construction sector, such as cement and timber, as well as problem for the manufacturing sector, were also highlighted.
There is now a shortage of more than 100,000 HGV drivers in the UK, out of a pre-pandemic total of about 600,000, a Road Haulage Association survey of its members estimates.
That number included tens of thousands of drivers from EU member states who were living and working in the UK.
Even before Covid, the estimated shortage was about 60,000 drivers.
Covid is certainly part of it. As travel became increasingly restricted last year, and large parts of the economy shut down, many European drivers went home. And haulage companies say very few have returned.
The pandemic has also created a large backlog in HGV driver tests, so it’s been impossible to get enough new drivers up and running.
The industry said in a letter to the Prime Minister in June that there were 25,000 fewer candidates passing their test in 2020 than in 2019.
There is evidence of HGV driver shortages across Europe, but the UK has been among the hardest hit by the problem.
This was because many European drivers went back to their home countries or decided to work elsewhere.
When the UK was part of the single market, they used to be able to come and go as they pleased.
But the additional border bureaucracy after Brexit meant it was too much hassle for many of them to drive into and out of the UK.
Many drivers are paid by the mile or kilometre rather than by the hour, so delays cost them money.
Also, the decline in the value of the pound against the euro since the Brexit vote has meant that being paid in pounds has been less attractive for EU nationals.
There have also been tax changes making it more expensive for drivers from elsewhere in Europe to work or be employed in the UK.
The reform of the IR35 rules – on how people working off the payroll pay tax – are designed to prevent workers from setting up limited companies through which they pay less tax and National Insurance while working, in effect, as an employee.
But it means there’s less incentive for them to come and work in the UK because they make less money.
Haulage companies also want better conditions for drivers in general, and a recognition that they are a vital part of the economy.
They say the average age of HGV drivers in the UK is 55, and more needs to be done to attract younger workers.
One consequence of shortages, though, has been that some wages for drivers have been going up.
The government has slightly relaxed the Drivers’ Hours rules, which means drivers will be able to increase their daily driving limit from nine hours to 11 hours twice a week.
The temporary extension to driver hours, which initially ran for four weeks until 8 August was then extended to 3 October. But it has been criticised as compromising safety standards and the industry says it will do little to ease the problems it is facing.
A government spokesperson said longer journeys “must only be used where necessary and must not compromise driver safety.”
Haulage companies have reiterated their calls for foreign drivers to be added to what’s known as the Shortage Occupations list, allowing them to qualify for a skilled worker visa.
But Transport Secretary Grant Shapps rejected immigration as the solution, saying: “We do have to stand on our own two feet as the United Kingdom”.
The government argues that progress is already being made in testing and hiring, and it says a big push is being made towards improving pay, working conditions and diversity.
Written by Paul Connelly, Managing Director of J & J Recruitment Solutions on 20th September 2021. Since writing, a fuel shortage has closed several petrol stations due to a HGV driver shortage limiting deliveries to station and as a result of members of the public panic buying.
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