Colin Brook

As the country pulls away from the Covid crisis, and rightly gets back to work, demand across industry is sure to increase. This could well bring on another crisis, this time far more economically driven. When the hospitality sector fully reopens demands on the transport sector will vastly outstrip current availability.

The heavy goods driver shortage will continue to bite and soon disrupt critical supply chains despite the increasing concerns which have now been highlighted for some time by hauliers and distribution companies nationwide. A range of measures will be required if shelves are not to run empty and these measures will have to be introduced through the industry and government working together. An opportunity exists to revisit a raft of related issues, from drivers’ hours to weight limits and vehicle sizes to licence qualifications, but will that nettle be grasped?

It now matters little why this acute shortage has happened, and spending time playing the blame game is ludicrous when considered alongside using the time productively to resolve the problem. It has to be accepted rash decisions have been made on all quarters, from government to the smallest of independent hauliers. For far too long those thinking people within the industry have seen this problem coming but have sat on their hands recklessly believing it to be someone else’s problem. There was always going to be a reduced labour flow following Brexit, and the introduction of the ill-conceived IR-35 legislation coming into play at the same time could do no more than exacerbate a foreseeable problem. Adding the excuse of Covid, which virtually every man and his dog now hides behind, and the ‘problem’ swiftly works its way through predicament into crisis, despite the undeniable resilience of the industry.

Why have we left it until now to recognise this as a problem when the writing has been clearly scrawled across the wall for years? Why are we so reluctant to criticise ourselves and thereby learn from our mistakes? Why do we constantly seek to place the blame at the door of others when we have been complicit throughout? We know the problems. We have a shrewd idea as to the answers. We therefore have an overriding duty to see they are implemented.

In virtually every walk of life experience is cherished. In engineering, young and budding engineers are often mentored long after an apprenticeship. Similar practices occur with surgery, with aviation, with law and even with politics, but it is actively discouraged in the haulage industry where older drivers are encouraged or forcibly retired by the DVLA. It appears drivers are to be taken off the road at age 66, irrespective as to their personal wishes, simply because they have reached their ‘do not exceed’ date. This risible attitude, possibly originating from just one overly-zealous person’s interpretation of guidelines, seems to have taken root and become general policy regardless of consequences to individuals, companies or state. Government must stop this practice now.

If enforced age retirement is something of an issue, medically enforced retirement is a far more dangerous one. It is an absolute that drivers with medical problems which might cause fainting, seizures or blackouts should not be driving. Nor should those likely to suffer a heart attack or anything else which is likely to create a clear and present danger to others using the road network. However, those who have undergone corrective surgery and been passed as fit to return to work should not then have their licences suspended or removed merely because surgery has occurred. If there are medical doubts then those concerned should be properly and fully tested, but there should be no presumption of inability solely because they have gone under the knife. When any of those who are experts in their respective fields pass a driver as fit for work this should be accepted by the DVLA, not simply scorned and overruled as a matter of policy.

No rational transport manager would ever sanction a completed engine rebuild with turbo replacement if their intention was to scrap the vehicle the moment it left the workshop – yet the DVLA do this with people. To make matters far worse, completely unqualified part-time clerks at the DVLA do this on a daily basis. The road haulage industry is crying out for good, reliable, experienced drivers – yet the DVLA are forcibly retiring them on little more than a whim.

That DVLA clerks can override the decisions of eminent surgeons and believe, by reducing a Class 1 driver to Class 3, on medical grounds, were something to happen to that driver the consequences for anyone he killed in a 7.5-tonne truck would be less severe for the victim than if they were killed by a 40-tonne vehicle is absurd to the point of farce.

With the DVLA retiring as many drivers as they can, on age and pseudo medical grounds, it seems somewhat illogical the DfT then seek to plug the current skills shortage gap by extending drivers hours, forcing those behind the wheel to shoulder the national burden. It has to be presumed the hypocrisy of the move is missed as, a few weeks earlier, drivers faced exorbitant fines for exceeding their hours by minutes, just once, as it was then deemed unsafe and put the general public at an unacceptable risk. Now drivers are expected to add an hour and to do so on a daily basis. Obviously the safety element has undergone a major rethink.

The industry is close to stalling. Brexit and Covid have contributed, but the underlying problem is due to a mixture of long term complacency and failure to plan for the future across industry and government. We must learn, consider the future, recruit nationally, train appropriately and retain experience whenever possible.

Colin Brook, ex-HGV driver