UK ministers are allowing lorry drivers to work longer hours in an attempt to solve an acute staff shortage that is disrupting deliveries and threatening to push up consumer prices.
But haulage companies and unions said changing rules designed to ensure safety would make little difference in the short term — and would if anything worsen the sector’s long-term recruitment problems by making already difficult working conditions even less attractive.
Grant Shapps, transport secretary, said the temporary relaxation of rules on drivers’ hours would take effect from Monday, giving drivers and operators “flexibility” to make slightly longer journeys while the authorities clear backlogs in vocational testing.
However, Logistics UK, which represents the freight industry, accused the government of “wallpapering” over the problem. “Government has ignored the industry,” said James Firth, the group’s head of road freight regulation policy.
“Loading more hours on to drivers that are already exhausted is not the answer — it’s nothing more than a sticking plaster,” said Richard Burnett, chief executive of the Road Haulage Association.
Unite, the trade union, said drivers asked to work longer hours could leave the industry, adding that the government had “so far failed to take any action to encourage new entrants”.
Haulage is one of several sectors where emerging labour shortages have been exacerbated by Brexit, with operators now unable to recruit from the EU to replace drivers who returned to their home countries during the pandemic. Employers have reported similar, intensifying pressures in hospitality, care, construction and food processing.
However, the Home Office has so far resisted industry pressure to allow temporary visas for overseas drivers.
The Department for Transport said the rule change would allow only a slight increase in the daily driving limit, from nine to 10 hours, with an 11-hour limit allowed twice weekly. Operators would have to notify the department if they used the new flexibility and should do so only if essential.
The government had already begun to address the shortage by ramping up vocational testing capacity and funding for apprenticeships, and by steering jobseekers towards roles in the sector, the DfT said.
But road haulage would ultimately need to solve its own problems, the ministry suggested, saying that most solutions “are likely to be driven by industry, with . . . a big push towards improving pay, working conditions and diversity”.
Burnett said the shortage was already leading to substantial increases in drivers’ pay rates, which were likely to be passed on to suppliers and retailers.
Meanwhile, business surveys suggest that broader pay pressures are increasing across the economy, as employers step up hiring while new immigration rules and the ongoing furlough scheme limit the supply of candidates.
A monthly report by KPMG and the Recruitment & Employment Confederation, published on Thursday, showed the share of recruiters reporting rising starting salaries was the highest since 2014. The proportion seeing increases in hourly pay for temps was the highest since 2004.
A quarterly report by the British Chambers of Commerce, published on Wednesday, found that 70 per cent of businesses trying to recruit were struggling to find staff, with the biggest difficulties reported in construction and hospitality.