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27 September 2021

The lorry driver shortage presents the UK with an unpalatable choice

The government must choose between queues and shortages or higher prices.

By Stephen Bush

While most of the political media is at the Labour Party Conference, the story leading the news bulletins is the ongoing fuel crisis. More than half of British fuel stations outside the motorway network are out of fuel, as the shortage of HGV drivers continues to make itself felt in the wider economy. 

Boris Johnson is contemplating deploying the army to drive trucks and make deliveries to help ease the crisis, and has signed off plans to make it easier for HGV drivers to get short-term visas.

In the cabinet, and indeed in British politics as a whole, there are two schools of thought about what is causing the shortage: is it primarily a short-term problem – exacerbated by the increase in demand for workers caused by the end of lockdowns across the continent – because British employers no longer have free access to the European Economic Area’s workforce? Or is it a deeper and more long-term shift in the labour market? Both forces are clearly at work, but which is the biggest factor?

In making it easier for British employers to recruit HGV drivers from overseas, Johnson has sided with those in the cabinet who think the problem is the recruitment difficulties caused by leaving the single market, rather than with those who think the solution lies primarily in higher wages. (More from Anoosh Chakelian and I on the politics and policy of all that here.) 

One way or the other, the driver shortage is going to continue to make itself felt here in the UK, whether in queues and shortages or in higher prices. A bumpy road lies ahead.

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