James Bielby

Wholesale not “crying wolf” on driver shortage – Bielby

FWD Chief Executive James Bielby points out the sector’s struggles as they grapple with the HGV driver crisis

Just as the worst effects of Covid look to be over, an issue that could potentially pose a bigger crisis for the food distribution industry has rolled up. Quite literally in fact, with a shortage of drivers having huge impact on the supply chain.

In some ways the two things are related. The shortage of delivery drivers follows what for some has been an 18-month shortage of customers. Too few drivers to deliver from depots and distribution centres means runs get cut short and a few customers don’t get the stock they need. But that’s only going to be a problem if there are enough drivers to deliver the stock into wholesalers in the first place.

And there just isn’t. It’s taken a while to reveal itself but now a combination of the long-term decline in HGV driver numbers, Covid restrictions and the impact of Brexit have conspired to leave us speeding towards a cliff edge, with seemingly no one driving at all.

In a meeting with representatives of industry, Department of Transport Minister Baroness Vere was nonchalant in the face of mounting evidence. She said there was “a perception that the industry was crying wolf.”

To which our response was; are schools concerns that they will have to close because they can’t feed the children ‘crying wolf’? Are slowly-returning restaurants and pubs, desperate for the stock they need so they can throw their doors open and welcome back full capacity ‘crying wolf’? Are shops in remote and vulnerable communities, where they’re the only source of food, ‘crying wolf’ when their distributor can’t get to them? And wholesalers, making the impossible choice of which of their customers not to supply: presumably they are crying wolf too.

It’s not that the government isn’t aware of the problem. The crisis in haulage has been on its radar for years and it’s heard all the warning of an ageing driver population and a lack of new entrants to the sector. It might even have calculated that Brexit would see many EU nationals leaving the driver market in the UK, or that others might prefer to take the offer of furloughing themselves rather than expose themselves to a raging pandemic.

Where the government has got this catastrophically wrong is in its insistent that this is a medium- to long-term problem and therefore needs medium- to long-term solutions. To believe this, ministers have to cover their ears and pretend the wolf howls they can hear are coming from much further away than they really are.

It’s bad now; with millions of us desperate to enjoy someone else’s hospitality in pubs and restaurants over the next couple of months it’s only going to get worse. Earlier this month, FWD predicted that wholesalers would not have met customer demand had the original Freedom Day gone ahead as intended on June 21 and we told the government it had less than a month to find a solution and avert an even bigger crisis before its revised date of July 19.

And still we haven’t got to the worst of it – that will come in September, when schools, workplaces and hospitality will all be competing for an increasingly scarce resource.

So we’ll be in the ear of government day and night until it listens. We have suggested a temporary extension of drivers’ hours, an end to furlough for HGV drivers and a Seasonal Visa Scheme for qualified lorry drivers from the EU and beyond. A temporarily waiving of requirements for medical certs and CPC for those which have run out would help fill vacancies, as would placing HGV drivers on the Shortage Occupation List and welcoming back some of those who left the UK when it left the EU.

Will they listen? They will if enough people shout loud enough. There is a growing coalition of trade bodies standing beside us, but we need the whole food distribution chain, both suppliers and wholesalers, to add their names as well.

driver shortage FWD Government HGV drivers James Bielby