UK Government nixes temporary foreign HGV workers idea

Dairy UK adds to voices calling for Covid Recovery Visa to address workforce shortages

By Jim Cornall

- Last updated on GMT

Dairy UK highlighted the disruption in the delivery of food across the UK due to a serious shortage of HGV drivers. Pic: Getty Images/Iurii Malaschenko
Dairy UK highlighted the disruption in the delivery of food across the UK due to a serious shortage of HGV drivers. Pic: Getty Images/Iurii Malaschenko

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In a new cross-industry report, the UK food and drink sector is calling for a 12-month Covid-19 Recovery Visa to help alleviate the workforce shortages causing serious disruption across the whole of the supply chain and significantly increasing the cost of getting food to the public.

The report has been sent to government ministers, highlighting the impact the pandemic and the UK’s post-Brexit immigration policy is having on the sector’s ability to recruit key workers. The report highlights an average vacancy rate of 13% and estimates there are more than 500,000 vacancies across food and drink businesses.

In order to ensure continuity, quality and choice in the food supply, both in the immediate and medium-term, the report sets out ways government can help the food and drink industry overcome the current workforce challenges.

These include: the introduction of a 12-month Covid-19 Recovery Visa, which would enable all involved throughout the supply chain to recruit critical roles, such as HGV drivers, as a short-term response to labor shortages; commitment to a permanent, revised and expanded Seasonal Worker Scheme for UK horticulture to ensure it is flexible and large enough to meet the industry’s workforce needs; and an urgent review by the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) on the impact of ending free movement on the food & farming sector, in the same way it is doing for adult social care.

NFU vice president Tom Bradshaw said, “For the past 18 months food and farming businesses have been working hard to keep shelves and fridges full of nutritious and affordable food, but as this report demonstrates, businesses throughout the supply chain in a wide variety of roles are really feeling the impacts of the workforce shortages.

“At the very start of the supply chain, farm businesses are feeling the pressure. For example, horticulture farms are struggling to find the workforce to pick and pack the nation’s fruit and veg, with some labour providers seeing a 34% shortfall in recruitment.

“Farm businesses have done all they can to recruit staff domestically, but even increasingly competitive wages have had little impact because the labour pool is so limited – instead only adding to growing production costs.

“It is simplistic to argue that the end of furlough will see many more people meeting this shortfall, but furloughed workers are concentrated in urban areas and not where many agri-food roles are located. A solution to this crisis will need the right people with the right skills and training available in rural areas where many roles are based.

“A short term Covid Recovery Visa, alongside a permanent Seasonal Workers Scheme, would be an effective and, frankly, vital route to help the pressing needs of the industry today. It would also give us time to invest in the skills and recruitment of our domestic workforce, helping to provide long-term stability so we can recruit the people we need to continue to deliver quality, nutritious and affordable food for the nation.”

The Food and Drink Federation’s chief executive, Ian Wright CBE, said, “This really authoritative report sets out in stark detail the labor and skills shortages currently facing the food supply chain. Drawing on a wide range of evidence the report illustrates the breadth and scale of the issues confronting the industry. The report makes it crystal clear that today’s labor shortages are caused by a multitude of structural factors beyond those created by Covid-19 and the end of the Brexit transition period.

“The recommendations set out within this report, including the Covid Recovery Visa and measures to support domestic training and skills development, the adoption of new technologies and career promotion, provide industry and the Government with highly practical solutions. They will ensure that the food supply chain continues to thrive with a strong and skilled workforce. However, it is also evident that without fast action the labor challenges will continue. If they do, we can expect unwelcome consequences such as reduced choice and availability for consumers, increased prices, and reduced growth across the domestic food chain.”

Dr Judith Bryans, chief executive of Dairy UK, said, “The food and drink sector is the bedrock of food security in the UK as well as being a major contributor to the economy. The food sector is investing into the skills and recruitment of its workforce and taking all the measures it can to address the many issues raised in this report. However, we are now experiencing significant difficulties in terms of labor shortages. One very practical example is the disruption in the delivery of food across the UK due to the serious shortage of HGV drivers.

“This report lays out clearly what Government support and interventions are now essential for the food and drink sector to address these issues and avoid a future of continued disruption. We’d strongly urge the Government to act upon the recommendations within this report.”

The dairy industry is among those suffering with issues transporting goods.

Last week, Logistics UK and British Retail Consortium (BRC) wrote to the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) to outline key three steps the government can take to overcome the problem and protect the supply chain.

According to the groups, the crisis is anticipated to worsen in the coming months as demand for goods increases with the new school year starting, businesses returning to their workplaces post-Covid-19 restrictions, and the build-up to Christmas beginning – traditionally the peak time for logistics movements.

Writing to Rt Hon Kwasi Kwarteng MP, the Secretary of State at BEIS, David Wells, the chief executive of Logistics UK, explained the retail and logistics industries are taking proactive measures to address the driver shortage challenge – including increasing pay rates, offering bonuses, and implementing internal training schemes – but said the government must take immediate action to support supply chains.

“The current shortfall of around 90,000 HGV drivers is placing unsustainable pressure on retailers and their supply chains. While there was a shortage of HGV drivers prior to the Covid-19 pandemic and Brexit, these two events have exacerbated the situation; the pandemic halted driver training and testing for more than 12 months, while an estimated 14,000 EU drivers returned home during the pandemic and following the end of the transition period,”​ Wells said.

“Logistics UK and BRC are urging the government to adopt three policies immediately. First, to increase DVSA’s testing capacity permanently so the agency is able to process the backlog of driver tests placed on hold during the pandemic – this has left thousands of aspiring HGV drivers unable to join the workforce. The government should also review its decision not to grant temporary work visas to HGV drivers from the EU, as such drivers could supplement the domestic HGV workforce in the short-term, while the testing backlog is cleared, and new drivers are trained and become qualified. Third, industry needs government to ensure its skills and training schemes support the recruitment of HGV drivers, by reforming the National Skills Fund to fund HGV driver training and injecting flexibility into the Apprenticeship Levy.”

However, the response from Kwarteng was to reject the call, and stress that UK-based workers should be hired and trained, rather than relying on labor from other countries to fix a shortage of drivers.

He said loosening immigration rules would only be a short-term temporary solution, in spite of warnings from Logistics UK that there is already a backlog of new drivers waiting for tests, and training new drivers can take up to nine months.

Logistics UK general manager of public policy Alex Veitch said Logistics UK is ‘frustrated’ by the decision.

“While these new domestic drivers are trained and qualify into the workforce, which can take up to nine months, and the DVSA works through its backlog of outstanding HGV driver tests – which we estimate could take until early 2022 – temporary visas made available for European workers would help to overcome the current supply chain problems experience across the country.

“The industry needs drivers now, and we have been urging the government to replicate its temporary visa scheme, introduced for agricultural workers, for logistics to keep trucks and vans moving in the short term.”