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Haulage operators are demanding government action after a record spike in volumes, combined with a dearth of drivers made worse by a backlog in HGV driver tests, threatened to push many to the brink.

Business group Logistics UK has also urged the DVSA to ramp up its fast-track programme to clear at least 30,000 driving tests, after postponements due to the pandemic left thousands of potential truckers waiting in the wings, right when the country needs them most.

Bullet Express said it was “incredible busy”, with volumes as high as 300% above what they normally were: “Everyone is working at capacity,” said MD Dave McCutcheon.

“It's six days a week and the staff are stressed out.

“They haven’t had a decent holiday in the last year.

“There’s a supply issue too; it’s difficult to get trucks and parts if they break down.”

McCutcheon said the government needed to step in and allow non-UK nationals to take up UK-based driving jobs: “This problem is here now and the government doesn’t realise the seriousness of the situation.”

Gregory Distribution said it viewed its apprenticeship programme as one solution to the skills shortage and it intended to scale it up this year, doubling the number of candidates it trained.

But it acknowledged that a limiting factor was the availability of HGV driver test slots.

Paul Jefferson, Gregory’s legal, risk and sustainability director, said: “We will still aim to bring in 50 apprentices in the next quarter.

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“And we will then do everything we can to get tests booked. It won’t affect our appetite and ambition, but there will be a knock-on effect.

“It will delay the end product, the driver coming out the other end.”

Jefferson said volumes had also increased “quite significantly” but Gregory Distribution was able to flex its assets and as some of the increase was predictable, it planned for higher volumes and had retained trucks: “Rather than retiring fleet, we kept hold of them,” he said.

“We have been quite careful about selling equipment. If we were to approach a manufacturer for a new vehicle, then lead times would be very significant.”

A recent report from Logistics UK found almost one in 10 logistics businesses (9.8%) said driver recruitment was now “an extreme barrier” to their recovery and the business group called on the government to unlock access to a career in the industry.

Alex Veitch, general manager for public policy at Logistics UK, said: “The nationwide shortage of HGV drivers is stalling businesses’ recovery from the pandemic.

“With a large pool of potential candidates available - owing to the nation’s higher unemployment - we urge the government to make driver training affordable, accessible and attractive for all.”

McCutcheon added: “It’s going to get to the point where a customer will ask for a delivery and we’ll say, 'we don’t have a truck, sorry.'

“That day is not too far off.”