When the drama fuels a crisis…

Like it wasn’t enough juggling the lifting of pandemic restrictions… There had to be something else
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By Jonathan Spencer

It doesn’t take much for a drama to exacerbate a crisis. In these crazy months, the silly season of summer spilled into chaos for the UK’s logistics and road haulage sector, highlighting a lack of qualified truck drivers behind a sham communications plan.

Like it wasn’t enough juggling the lifting of pandemic restrictions, the patriation of thousands of Afghan refugees, and a spike in global gas prices. There had to be something else.

Never mind roads blocked by climate protesters gluing themselves to London’s M25 motorway, the chicken now really coming home to roost in the UK is the shortage of heavy goods vehicle (HGV) drivers. According to the Road Haulage Association, more than 100,000 drivers are needed. This includes replacing thousands of European drivers who were living and driving in the UK but have since returned.

The pandemic restricting the movement of workers and post-Brexit immigration changes are the main reasons, along with some 40,000 HGV driver applications waiting to be processed – the backlog further hindered in the last 18-months. But that far from explains the deficit of a younger workforce.

The trucking lifestyle, living alone in the cab of a lorry; the often-cited disparity of pay and rough conditions don’t quite cut it for college leavers. Hence the vacancies that in recent decades have attracted more and more qualified HGV drivers from overseas. Consecutive governments have relied on this. Of course, it wasn’t just haulage. UK visas are routinely afforded to care workers, surgeons, and nurses. The National Health Service (NHS) still exists because of them.

Now the 5000 fast-tracked visas that Britain has issued to tease drivers back from Europe for a few months seems a drop in the ocean.

Cabotage might seem a compromise in such circumstances – that card played last year in the final rounds of a Brexit deal being brokered, but this a step too far for the EU. We can’t haul our cake and eat it. But there’s method in the madness when the pressures are felt beyond Brussels.

If a Lithuanian refrigerated truck fleet would haul meats or fresh goods across the channel and make deliveries around the UK, before returning with export loads it saves fuel and avoids empty trucks.

Road tanker logistics have clear differences, but if you could secure a clause enabling qualified tanker drivers’ freedom of movement, that would help. Couldn’t we consider international HGV drivers much as we do airline pilots, if not football players.

Freedom of movement on smart terms that broker solutions; I mean, we left the EU, we didn’t renege on wholesale globalisation.

And so petrol stations ran dry, highlighting just one pressure point. There’s nothing like a bit of drama to fuel the wider crisis.

A confidential BP document to a Cabinet Office meeting mid-September flagging sector concerns over the shortage of HGV drivers is leaked to a media outlet. Shocking. Hmmm…? Extremely unhelpful. There are reasons why some information is not put in the public domain. This isn’t news manipulation; it is news management. Government contingency isn’t about transparency, it’s about avoiding fear where there isn’t any need for raising public anxiety.

The media ran the story and the public panicked. Publics do. Showing pictures of ‘no fuel’ signs and interviewing fraught drivers queuing only polarises the crisis; it perpetuates the fear and rational people react.

For what it’s worth, the Army is routinely at around 12 to 48 hours’ notice to operate in assistance to the UK civil authorities. And, unless they are required, the story doesn’t need archive images of them either. Keeping a lid on some assets can be helpful for public peace of mind.

The millions of cars and vans immediately rushing to top up their tanks at fuel station forecourts dwarfs the tank capacity that lies beneath. Britain has a robust supply of fuel. But, with the lack of drivers to resupply them, the petrol and diesel soon ran out at the pumps.

Tempers frayed; stories followed. Care workers didn’t reach elderly patients; surgeons couldn’t get to operations …and piggies didn’t get to market. Climate protesters didn’t need to block roads.

Perhaps I’m missing something, but with this current tide of refugees – young Afghan interpreters and many others – are we asking the right question. “Never mind the fruit-picking, can you drive the truck?” 

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