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16 December 2021

H is for HGV drivers: Empty shelves and petrol panic as Covid-19 and Brexit caused a trucker shortage

A gap of 100,000 lorry drivers led to a drop in supplies from Nando’s chicken to McDonald’s milkshakes.

By Anoosh Chakelian

Would you be up for sleeping in a layby, breathing in fumes all day and urinating in a bottle for £70,000 a year and a £2,000 “golden hello”? Some logistics companies clearly thought so, as this was the deal they were reportedly touting around greasy spoons in desperation as a lack of truckers nearly brought Britain to a standstill in the autumn.

The combination of a global surge in demand as the pandemic eased, suspended HGV testing during the lockdowns, and the return of EU workers to their home countries led to a national shortage of 100,000 lorry drivers by September.

As some HGV drivers found themselves with 40 per cent pay rises overnight, the rest of the country wasn’t doing quite as well out of the crisis, with the supply chain bottleneck being felt across industries – from petrol to McDonald’s milkshakes, and Nando’s chicken to the chemicals needed to clean water… Not to mention any Christmas dinner staple that journalists could think of to ask food and drink trade bodies about.

A global gas shortage pushing up fuel bills, empty supermarket shelves and queues at forecourts very quickly spelt a winter crisis for Boris Johnson, who attempted to make a virtue of it – shrugging that this was merely the painful transition to a high-skill, high-wage economy post-Brexit.

Businesses weren’t buying it, and 5,000 visas were offered for foreign drivers to come over and fill the gap. They didn’t prove particularly popular, however, with just 20 issued by mid-October. In the words of one Dutch trade union boss: “The EU workers that we speak to will not go to the UK for a short-term visa to help UK out of the shit they created themselves.”

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