On 26 October 2021, the House of Lords is due to consider the following oral question about the heavy goods vehicle (HGV) driver shortage:

Baroness Randerson (Liberal Democrat) to ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to evaluate the success of the measures it has put in place to address the shortage of HGV drivers.

What is the HGV driver shortage?

The HGV driver shortage refers to a reduction in the number of HGV drivers working and an increase in HGV driver vacancies. Reports from the BBC suggest the UK has been most affected by this shortage, but that it is also becoming an issue in other European countries.

On 23 June 2021, the Road Haulage Association (RHA), the UK’s trade association for road haulage, wrote a letter to Boris Johnson, the Prime Minister, about a shortage of HGV drivers. It sought the Prime Minister’s urgent intervention to resolve the “significant and rapidly deteriorating” situation. The RHA stated that the shortage was “at crisis point”, with an estimated shortage of over 100,000 drivers. It also said that this was causing critical supply to fail.

According to fact checking organisation Full Fact, the figure of over 100,000 drivers has been calculated based on:

Employment data from the ONS shows UK HGV driver numbers have been declining since 2016/17. In previous years, this decline has been accompanied by an increase in EU HGV drivers working in the UK. However, from 2019/20, EU drivers employed in the UK declined from 44,000 to 28,000. Overall, HGV driver numbers have been decreasing since 2016/2017:

Number of HGV drivers in employment in the UK by nationality, not seasonally adjusted

Graph showing number of HGV drivers in employment (thousands) by time period

Source: ONS, ‘HGV drivers by age and nationality’, 27 August 2021.
Note: Statistics should be read in accordance with caveats provided in the original dataset.

Why is there a shortage of HGV drivers?

Several factors are believed to have caused the shortage of HGV drivers, including the Covid-19 pandemic, Brexit and an ageing workforce.

The RHA’s letter to the Government and the Government’s response to the HGV driver shortage set out these factors:

  • Covid-19: The RHA states that many non-UK drivers returned to their country of origin during lockdown and restricted travel periods, and have not returned. The Government cited “the economic bounce-back from Covid-19” as a contributing factor to the HGV shortage.
  • Test shortage: The Government and the RHA agree that a shortage of HGV licence tests has contributed to the driver shortage. This was attributed to the shutdown of vocational driving tests throughout lockdowns.
  • Retiring drivers: The RHA states that the average age of an HGV driver is 55, with less than 1% under the age of 25. According to employment data from the ONS, 136,000 of the 275,000 HGV drivers employed in the UK are aged 50 or over. The Government agrees that an ageing workforce and lack of diversity in the industry is a contributing factor to the shortage.
  • EU exit: The RHA claims “the uncertainty of Brexit and future rights to live and work in the UK forced many drivers [to leave the country]” and that the “vast majority have not returned nor are expected to”. Whilst the Government does not cite Brexit as a contributing factor, it does state that a “reliance on overseas labour with a lack of long-term investment in the UK domestic workforce” has contributed.
  • Off-payroll working rules (IR35): In an article by the RHA about the driver shortages and IR35, it “welcomed legislation that ensures fair and equal tax for all”. However, it also noted that changes in off-payroll working rules (IR35) by HM Revenue and Customs may have led to a pay cut for some, intensifying the driver shortage. The off-payroll working rules ensure individuals who are working like employees, but through their own limited company or other intermediary, pay similar levels of tax and national insurance to those directly employed. Before these changes, drivers decided whether they were employed by a firm or self-employed. However, employers are now responsible for deciding this. This means that some drivers may have experienced tax increases as a result of this change.

What is the impact of an HGV driver shortage?

The HGV driver shortage has impacted fuel, food, and drink supplies. There are also warnings from retailers it may impact supplies for Christmas, as well as leading to price increases.

On 4 October 2021, the Government deployed almost 200 military tanker personnel to provide temporary support delivering fuel supplies across the UK, as part of the Government’s response to the HGV driver shortage.

The Petrol Retailers Association, which represents almost 5,500 independent outlets, says that panic buying has contributed to the fuel shortage experienced in October, in addition to the HGV driver shortage. Other supply chain issues have been linked to the HGV driver shortage, including reports of a fast-food shortage in August, affecting firms such as McDonald’s and Nando’s, and a beer and soft drink shortage in September, affecting pubs including Wetherspoons.

There have also been warnings from toys retailer The Entertainer of a potential shortage of toys for Christmas due to a backlog of shipping containers at Felixstowe, the UK’s largest port. Several factors are cited to have contributed to this backlog, including the HGV driver shortage. Supermarkets such as Morrisons have also warned that the HGV driver shortage could be one of several factors that leads to price increases in retail.

What steps is the Government taking to address the shortage?

Temporary immigration arrangements for drivers and increasing driving test appointments are some of several actions that the Government has proposed in order to address the HGV driver shortage. These actions were outlined in the Government’s response to the HGV driver shortage.

Immigration arrangements for drivers

On 25 September, the Government announced that 5,000 HGV drivers would be able to work in the UK on a three-month temporary visa until Christmas. In October 2021, the Government extended the temporary visa scheme for food goods HGV drivers from Christmas to 28 February 2022. The Government clarified that 4,700 temporary visas would be available for food goods drivers to arrive from late October, while 300 fuel goods drivers would be allowed to enter immediately.

For the fuel goods drivers, the Home Office launched a concession for temporary leave to enter the UK to allow employment as HGV fuel drivers on 2 October 2021. This concession has now ended. According to Free Movement, an organisation providing immigration information for all, this concession allowed non-visa nationals arriving between 1 October 2021 and 15 October 2021 to seek permission to enter at the UK border and work as HGV fuel drivers in the UK until 31 March 2022.

Driving test appointments

The DVSA is streamlining the HGV driving test from autumn 2021. In a written statement to Parliament on 10 September 2021 about driver testing changes, Grant Shapps, the Secretary of State for Transport, announced changes to legislation that will be introduced:

First, car drivers will no longer need to take another test to tow a trailer or caravan, allowing roughly 30,000 more HGV driving tests to be conducted every year. Second, tests will also be made shorter by removing the ‘reversing exercise’ element—and for vehicles with trailers, the ‘uncoupling and recoupling’ exercise—and having it tested separately by a third party. And third, we will make it quicker to get a licence to drive an articulated vehicle, without first having to get a licence for a smaller vehicle. This would make around 20,000 more HGV driving tests available every year and mean drivers can gain their licence and enter the industry more quickly—without reducing the rigour of the test.

Funding HGV driver training

The Government has said that it will fund HGV licences for any adult starting an HGV driving qualification via the adult education budget 2021/22 from 1 August 2021. Previously, these licences were self-funded. The Department for Education is also investing in new skills bootcamps to train up to 5,000 new HGV drivers. These free, short, intensive HGV courses will train drivers to be “road-ready” in 16 weeks. The Government is also providing up to £7,000 per person for large goods vehicle (LGV) driver C and E apprenticeships.

Other actions

In September 2021, the Department for Transport, in collaboration with the RHA and logistics organisation Logistics UK, sent a letter to HGV licence holders about the current shortage and employment opportunities available. The letter asked former HGV drivers to consider returning to the profession.

On 12 July 2021, the Department for Transport and the DVSA introduced a temporary relaxation of retained EU drivers’ hours rules, allowing drivers to work four 10-hour days in a week, rather than two, or to take alternative patterns of weekly rest, allowing drivers to work 99 hours a fortnight rather than 90 hours. This has been extended twice, with the current extension applying until 31 October 2021, subject to review.

How have these steps been received?

The Government’s actions to address the driver shortage have received a mixed response, with some steps being welcomed by the RHA and Logistics UK, and others criticised. Members of other political parties have also criticised the timeliness of the Government’s response.

Logistics UK welcomed some of the Government’s measures to address the driver shortage in a press release, including increasing the DVSA HGV testing capacity and contacting HGV driving licence-holders. However, it urged the Government to address the HGV driver shortage in the medium and longer-term. Logistics UK also criticised the original temporary visa scheme, announced late September and due to end before Christmas:

Logistics UK is concerned at the news that the temporary visas for HGV drivers granted by government may be for only a two-month duration, rather than the declared three-month period. […] Our fear is that it is very unlikely that a two-month visa will attract EU drivers which would make the scheme impotent.

The RHA welcomed some of the measures put in place by the Government, including the launch of new apprenticeships. However, it argued that these steps alone are not enough, and referred back to a call for action on the HGV driver shortage that the RHA published on 7 June 2021, which included a12-point action plan. This plan includes some actions not taken in the Government’s current response, including: reconsidering the shortage occupation list to include HGV drivers; improving collection and delivery sites; and revoking relaxation of driver hour limits. Speaking about drivers’ hours, the RHA Chief Executive, Richard Burnett, 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.

Jim McMahon, the Shadow Secretary of State for Transport, in his speech at the 2021 Labour Party conference, said that “piling more pressure on already exhausted existing drivers and cutting corners on [the HGV] test isn’t good enough”. He also criticised the Government’s response to the shortage:

This […] Government could and should have done more to attract people to the industry, to value those vital jobs. We’ve warned them, if you don’t act now, shelves will continue to be bare, with medicines not delivered and Christmas ruined for the nation.

The Liberal Democrats have also expressed concerns about the Government’s response to the HGV driver shortage. Alistair Carmichael (Liberal Democrat MP for Orkney and Shetland) said:

In the face of a national crisis and our ports going into gridlock, the response from Conservative ministers is too little, too late. This incompetence will mean more empty shelves and more misery for British consumers in the run-up to Christmas.

Despite this, the Government maintains that its measures are beginning to have a positive effect on the shortage. In a written statement to Parliament on motor vehicle driving licences and the HGV driver shortage on 18 October 2021, Grant Shapps said:

The need to tackle the heavy goods vehicle (HGV) driver shortage is a top priority for my department and this Government is committed to finding solutions to mitigate its effect and take urgent action. With 25 proactive actions taken by my department to resolve the long-term HGV driver shortage in recent weeks, we are already seeing results, with a 300% increase in the number of HGV provisional licence applications. This is a real achievement, but it is important that we continue to build on this success.

Cover image by Marcin Jozwiak on Unsplash.