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Fixing Britain’s Supply Chain Issues

Sainsbury’s Refrigerated Trailer at Marsh Mills, Plymouth
Sainsbury’s articulated refrigerated lorry; picture by Graham Richardson, used under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0

Shortage of Lorry Drivers and Empty Shelves

I work in transport, with more than eight years of professional experience from loading trucks to pricing contractual freight. People like me are basically making sure you always find your fresh milk and vegetables on the shelf. But these days the news is that there is a national shortage of lorry drivers, and photos of empty supermarket shelves are appearing on social media as a result of supply chain issues.

What are the Supply Chain Issues?

The long-term effects of Brexit were and are still uncertain. ONS data shows trade remains 27.3% below pre-pandemic levels while non-EU trade is only down 12.7%. This appears to show the direct influence of Brexit on reducing UK-EU trade.

UK food and drink exports fell by 47% in the first quarter of this year compared with the same period in 2020, with sales to the Republic of Ireland, traditionally the biggest export market, down by 71%.

Many argue that the worst is still to come. Many recall when the UK used to import twice as much from the EU as was exported to the Union. Currently shippers and logistics companies are getting ready for January 2022. Hopefully, thanks to the painful learning curve earlier this year, we can get it done better this time.

The main factors of transport pricing are supply (of trucks, containers etc) and demand (production output, consumption etc). However, since the crisis, rates have not fallen with demand, but the new rules created additional 400 million customs declarations and paperwork that is reckoned to have cost £13 billion so far. How could prices fall?

The UK driver shortage crisis only appears to be getting worse, particularly given the pick up in economic activity. Furthermore, as the UK implements the most stringent of border controls in 2022, inbound rates will keep adding to the UK transport costs for the near term. A cost increase for UK imports must be expected later when the new regulations have been implemented. 

What Are the Solutions to the Supply Chain Issues? 

In the short term we must pay more and our economy will struggle to operate efficiently. However, the UK Government is already acting and has plans including simplifying HGV driving tests and promoting an industry-led “Year of Logistics” to look at various ways to attract more people to join the industry from all parts of society. Furthermore, the government will look at more official parking spaces for lorry drivers, and ways to improve the standard of lorry parks.

The Department for Work and Pensions says it will continue to encourage those who have already left the industry to rejoin. Finally, the Government has also called on local councils to be flexible around delivery times to supermarkets and other retailers allowing drivers to make deliveries early in the morning or later in the evening where necessary. 

Commenting on the government’s announcement, RHA Chief Executive Richard Burnett had the following to say:

“This is a step in the right direction long-term, but it doesn’t address the critical short-term issues we’re facing. The problem is immediate, and we need to have access to drivers from overseas on short-term visas. The idea to simplify training and speed up testing is welcome; along with encouraging recruitment it will only improve things in a year or two’s time.” 

Driverless Lorries

One long term solution will be autonomous driverless vehicles but this is not happening tomorrow as you can imagine.

Whatever the solutions are, the last mile deliveries will still be done by humans. While in logistics I learned that fast doesn’t necessarily mean good, even if speed is important. Extending drivers’ hours is just increasing the pressure on drivers as the spokesman Dirk Engelhart from the German Transport Association mentioned.

Drivers Deserve Respect

National and international unions are working together to improve working conditions for drivers based on simple principles like improving the treatment of drivers at delivery sites with commitment from all parties: shippers, transport operators, and of course drivers themselves. This aims to respect that professional drivers are a key asset in the supply chains and to improve attractiveness in this sector. 

Secondly, logistics has an image problem which was recently highlighted in an article in the Scotsman by my old professor Alan McKinnon. He said:

“Given the critical role they play in the economy, the demands and stresses of the job and the increasingly complex world of regulation and IT within which they operate, lorry drivers deserve much more respect and higher rewards.”

There is a cross border initiative called “Support our drivers” and Volt’s political push for more European co-operation deserves more publicity.

A modern UK benefits from continental cooperation. The current post-Brexit setup is just slow, inefficient and expensive. Trust us who work in logistics. We always work to lessen friction and enhance cross-border cooperation.