The immediate cause of empty supermarket shelves is Brexit, hauliers claim. And the idea that bringing in the army would solve the driver shortage problem has been greeted by the industry with ridicule.
Claims over the weekend that the government is considering bringing in the army to cover the lack of drivers came out of the blue for hauliers.
The first they knew about it was reading the story in the newspapers. But the reaction seems to be one of disbelief.
The industry has long predicted major problems. But those problems have now reached what the Peterborough-based Road Haulage Association calls ‘catastrophic proportions’. The latest crisis does not come as a surprise, even if the government’s supposed solution does.
Hauliers surprised by claims to bring in the army
“Our members know nothing about bringing in the army at all,” says Tom Cornwell, East of England area manager for the Peterborough-based Road Haulage Association. “Only what they’ve read in the headlines.”
There are any number of practical problems confronting the idea which make it unworkable.
As Cornwell notes: “Most army drivers are territorials, who already have day jobs. So to have them take on a new role keeping the supermarket shelves stocked would mean removing them from their usual work.”
Bringing in the army would only provide a tiny number of the drivers required
“Military drivers have entirely different experiences and conditions for driving HGVs,” Cornwell points out. “They’re not trained to drive commercial HGVs on the urban road network.
“Many would have no experience of driving an artic. Commercial HGV drivers are highly skilled professionals who work to different regulations.”
The key question, however, may be on what contractual basis army drivers would be brought in.
Would they be loaned to hauliers to fill the gaps? In which case, who would pay them?
Or would the army act as a giant national haulier, taking on contracts itself? If so, how would it charge for its services? Or would it not charge? Haulage is a highly competitive sector. How would the RHA and its members would react to the possibility of disruption, possible undercutting and ultimately perhaps putting them out of business?
Then, which government department would run such a scheme? Or would there be several involved – Business, Environment, Transport, Defence?
2,000 army drivers a drop in the ocean
Also, it is estimated that there may be 2,000 army drivers who might be employed in the task, but the driver shortage in this country is estimated at 100,000.
“We’ve been campaigning about the driver shortage for years,” Cornwell complains. “The Brexit referendum aftermath saw EU drivers start to leave the UK, and we’ve lost 15,000 this year too.”
“What we don’t need is headlines. We don’t want a sticking plaster, we need long term solutions to the industry’s problems.”
So the empty shelves in supermarkets are a symptom of an industry potentially in crisis. One in which some of the structural issues may potentially prove insurmountable.
Food shortages are caused by ‘Brexit and nothing else’
Though the Association is circumspect on the reasons for the present food shortages, individual hauliers are less so. Jon Swallow is joint managing director of Jordon Freight of Felixstowe.
“No one must forget that what’s driving this present crisis is Brexit and nothing else,” he says.
“It’s not covid. The situation right now is down to Brexit. It’s that simple.
“Something like 80% of incoming goods was carried by international carriers. European drivers used to come over with a delivery, and then do a few internal deliveries as well.
“That’s a major major contribution to our problem, because the UK industry hasn’t been able to pick up the slack. And it was so obvious that this was going to happen.”
Swallow’s views on how this was first allowed to occur, and then not reported, are pointed.
“It’s not as though people didn’t know,” he says. “When this all happened I began doing interviews, and I hadn’t done this sort of thing before.
“At first I thought people didn’t understand, but over time I began to think there’s something else going on. It’s quite clear now that there was some other agenda at work.
“The news says it’s all down to covid or something else, but it won’t talk about Brexit. It doesn’t want to do it, it doesn’t want to go there.”
Driving a truck is something granddads do
For good environmental reasons there is pressure to reduce the number of HGVs on the road, but as yet there is no other realistic means of delivering goods.
Environment apart, the old problems will remain. The job is often poorly paid, and some drivers make less than the minimum wage.
It is stressful, drivers complain of not being appreciated and there are few facilities open to HGV drivers.
“It’s not going to be a career which will be around for much longer,” says Swallow. “We have an ageing workforce.
“I visit schools, and the kids all think it’s something their granddads do; it’s really not on their radar. Because Elon Musk is doing this, or that, trucks won’t be around in about 10 years.”
Brexit may be bringing the haulage industry to its knees, but even if a solution were found for the immediate problem, those threats to its future remain.