Britain on Friday vowed to do whatever it takes to resolve a trucker shortage that has closed petrol stations and strained supermarket supply chains to breaking point but the haulage industry cautioned that there were no quick fixes.
Just as the world’s fifth largest economy emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic, a spike in European wholesale natural gas prices and a post-Brexit shortage of truck drivers has closed some petrol stations and raised fears of a food supply crunch.
BP temporarily closed some of its 1,200 UK petrol stations due to a lack of both unleaded and diesel grades, which it blamed on driver shortages. ExxonMobil’s Esso said a small number of its 200 Tesco Alliance retail sites had also been impacted.
For months supermarkets and farmers have warned that a shortage of truck drivers was straining supply chains to breaking point – making it harder to get goods to market.
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said there was a global shortage of truckers after COVID halted lorry driver testing so Britain was doubling the number of tests. Asked if the government would ease visa rules, he said the government would look at all options.
“We’ll do whatever it takes,” Shapps told Sky News. “We’ll move heaven and earth to do whatever we can to make sure that shortages are alleviated with HGV drivers.”
“We should see it smooth out fairly quickly,” Shapps said.
But hauliers and logistics companies cautioned that there were no quick fixes and that any change to testing or visas would likely be too late to alleviate the pre-Christmas shortages as retailers stockpile months ahead.
Such is the strain that McDonald’s had to take milkshakes and bottled drinks off the menu at its British restaurants in August and chicken chain Nando’s ran out of chicken as they battled the supply chain issues that have hit businesses across the economy.
Suppliers have warned that there could be more shortages of petrol because of a lack of drivers to transport fuel from refineries to retail outlets.
The trucking industry body, the Road Haulage Association, has called on the government to allow short-term visas for international drivers to enter Britain and fill the gap, while British drivers are being trained for the future.
“It’s an enormous challenge,” Rod McKenzie, head of policy at the RHA, told Reuters. In the short-term he said international drivers could help, even if it may be too late to help Christmas, and in the longer term the industry needed better pay and conditions to attract workers.
“It’s a tough job. We the British do not help truckers in the way that Europeans and Americans do by giving them decent facilities,” he said.
The British haulage industry says it currently needs around 100,000 more drivers after some 25,000 returned to Europe before Brexit and the pandemic halted the qualification process for new workers.
Shapps said COVID-19 exacerbated the problem and that Britain was unable to test 40,000 drivers during lockdowns.
“It’s a bit of a global problem so it’s not immediately obvious that opening up visas would actually resolve the problem but we’ll move heaven and earth on this,” he told Times Radio.