As a result of Brexit and the coronavirus pandemic, major grocery chains in the United Kingdom are providing cash bonuses to lorry drivers, leaving tens of thousands of positions unfilled and shop shelves increasingly empty.

Industry concerns of a crisis affecting everything from milk to chocolates and tonic water have increased, as have demands for the government to act quickly or risk disruption in the run-up to Christmas.

“It’s a perfect storm,” said Rob Hollyman, head of transport company North West Cargo, in an interview with AFP.

His company owns 160 trucks but is having difficulty filling up to 30 driver openings across its three locations in northwest England.

According to the Road Haulage Association (RHA), there is a nationwide shortage of 100,000 truck drivers, out of a total trucking workforce of 300,000.

North West Cargo, like many other UK hauliers, used to fill its cabs with drivers from Eastern Europe. However, Britain’s exit from the European Union, as well as the imposition of onerous new visa regulations, spurred a mass exodus.

Meanwhile, an estimated 20,000 British trainee drivers are locked in the system, with the coronavirus pandemic producing a months-long backlog for license tests.

In addition, road haulage, like other UK businesses, is experiencing a “pingdemic” as a result of many drivers being informed via a government app to self-isolate after coming into contact with someone who has tested positive for Covid-19.

“We have the work, but we don’t have the drivers to do it,” Hollyman said, complaining that he is being outpriced by larger operators as a bidding war erupts to attract new drivers.

“It’s a major problem. This country has a finite number of drivers, and all that is occurring is that that resource is being dragged in one direction “He was alluding to grocery companies such as Tesco.

To entice new workers to run its heavy goods lorries, Britain’s largest retailer has promised starting bonuses of?1,000 ($1,390, 1,175 euros) (HGVs).

The John Lewis Partnership, which owns the Waitrose grocery chain, has announced that it will increase HGV driver pay by up to?5,000 in order to give “market competitive rates.”

“We’re fighting fires right now,” said Shane Brennan, CEO of the Cold Chain Federation, a logistics organization.

“We’re going to have interruptions on the shelves; we’re accustomed to that,” he told The Guardian.

Due to diminishing driver numbers, Arla Foods UK, the country’s largest dairy supplier, was unable to deliver milk to 600 of the country’s 2,400 outlets in late July.

“We are trying to avoid a summer of disruption,” managing director Ash Amirahmadi told BBC radio, urging the government to work with the industry “to recognise we are in a crisis and address the issue”.

So far, the government has responded by temporarily increasing the permissible working day for HGV drivers from eight to ten hours.

But the RHA called the relaxation a “sticking plaster” and, like Logistics UK, an industry group, is urging Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his government to open up short-term work visas for EU truckers.

“There will definitely still be a shortage of drivers until the New Year simply because there is still a very long queue of people waiting to take a driving test,” Logistics UK’s general manager for public policy, Alex Veitch, told AFP.

“We do struggle in the sector to recruit younger individuals, so that was always a concern.”

According to Logistics UK, the average age of a British-born lorry driver is 50, and 12,000 European drivers left the nation entirely in the first six months of 2020.

“We will have a difficult autumn,” Veitch predicted, amid warnings of potential shortfalls in the crucial Christmas period if retailers are forced to prioritise deliveries of basic necessities.

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said last month that “longer-term solutions must be led first and foremost by industry leaders”, as he announced a package of support including streamlined licence tests.

Photo: AFP / Tolga Akmen