Workers at risk of losing their jobs because of Covid could retrain as HGV drivers to address the UK’s shortage which has left supermarket shelves bare, a UK government minister has suggested. 

The UK unemployment rate, of 4.8 per cent, is 0.9 per cent higher than before the pandemic and more people could be looking for work when the government’s furlough scheme, which has subsidised wages, closes at the end of this month. 

But Baroness Charlotte Vere, in reply to a Plaid Cymru MP, has said the Government believes UK workers can make up for the shortfall in qualified HGV drivers. 

Plaid’s Hywel Williams had written to the government urging it to act on concerns from the Road Haulage Association to address an estimated shortage of 100,000 drivers. As well as calling for more support to train new drivers, the MP had asked that the Home Secretary add HGV drivers to an occupation shortage list so drivers from outside the UK can be recruited.

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Baroness Vere, the minister responsible for roads, replied on behalf of UK Transport Secretary Grant Shapps, and wrote “the HGV driver shortage will primarily be solved by market mechanisms” and ruled out changing immigration rules to allow more non UK citizens to come and work as drivers. 

In her letter the peer said Brexit, which has denied companies the opportunity to recruit workers from across the European Union, has allowed the Government to make changes to immigration rules. 

She wrote: “Leaving the EU has provided us with the opportunity to introduce a new immigration system while building a more resilient domestic workforce, and I am sure you would agree about the importance of utilising our domestic workforce and supporting the many UK-based workers who now face an uncertain future given the pandemic. Therefore, the government currently has no plans to introduce a short-term visa for HGV drivers.” 

The minister also acknowledged Mr Williams had also raised issues around pay, conditions and diversity in the industry which she said would be key to solving the shortage of drivers. 

However, the Arfon MP said he was unimpressed that the minister had brought up Brexit as he said there was nothing stopping it from supporting training for drivers. He said it’s a step that should have been taken in anticipation of a driver shortage. 

Mr Williams said he agreed on the need for “a more resilient” UK work force and that could have been done while Britain was a member of the EU. 

“We need to attract drivers who have left the logistics industry back. We need young people to train as HGV drivers. The failure to achieve this in the past was nothing to do with our EU membership,” said Mr Williams. 

 “A sensible government would have used the four years between the 2016 referendum and the 2020 exit to put a training and recruitment plan in place to avoid a skills shortage crisis when we left. This government’s approach is not sensible. Banning recruitment from other countries stops a quick response. Increasing drivers’ hours may be dangerous and will push drivers who don’t want further disruption to their lives out of the industry. 

 “The UK government’s planned interventions will take months, if not years, to plug the 100,000 shortfall of HGV drivers. 

“In the short term, HGV drivers must be added to the Shortage Occupations list, so that drivers from other countries – many of them EU citizens who worked in the UK before Brexit – can once again help us.” 

Baroness Vere in her letter also outlined steps the government is taking to support apprenticeships for lorry drivers and said it is also working with the Welsh Government and the road haulage industry to develop an HGV driver apprenticeship. 

Trade Union Unite says to address the shortage requires improved pay and conditions and action to tackle the lack of diversity in the industry. It also wants to see “simplified” rules on how many hours can be driven and move the cost of accreditation from drivers to employers. 

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