The U.K. desperately needs European truck drivers to fix its fuel crisis, but they’re not coming

October 5, 2021, 10:43 AM UTC

The U.K. government’s urgent appeal for European tanker drivers to come and help alleviate the country’s fuel crisis has largely fallen on deaf ears. A mere 27 (or 127, according to Prime Minister Boris Johnson) drivers have applied for the temporary work visas that were on offer. The government was hoping for 300, and that’s before it tries to attract another 4,700 truck drivers to save the holiday season.

Britain does not have a fuel shortage as such, but it does have a significant shortfall of truck drivers. This has caused serious supply-chain problems for retailers in recent months, and the past week and a half has also seen gas stations run dry as fuel companies struggle to get the stuff from refinery to pump. The fuel problem has eased somewhat over the past few days, but around a fifth of gas stations in and around London are still dry.

To ease the supply-chain worries and ensure empty gas stations don’t become endemic, U.K. trucking companies have made repeated pleas for the government to offer visas to attract foreign drivers—something which Johnson’s government has been loath to do. The government finally relented last week—but to no avail.

“What we said to the road haulage industry was, ‘Fine, give us the names of the drivers that you want to bring in, and we will sort out the visas, you’ve got another 5,000 visas,’” Johnson said in a BBC interview Tuesday. “They only produced 127 names so far.”

The Times of London reported that there had only been 27 applications. Asked by Fortune to clear up the confusion, the Department for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy confirmed that figure.

Brexit is one factor that has contributed to the driver drought, as it ended workers’ free movement between the EU and the U.K.—and left many expelled EU workers with a less-than-positive view of the U.K.—but there are others, too: the COVID-19 pandemic’s effect on staffing levels and license testing; and a long-standing reluctance on the part of younger people to replace the older truck drivers who are leaving the sector.

Can you drive a truck?

The U.K. government’s answer to the fuel crisis also includes relaxing testing standards for new truck drivers and bringing in the army, but the central response has been to desperately try recruiting foreign drivers for short-term work in Britain.

On top of the 300 visas the government is offering for fuel-tanker drivers from now through the end of March, it also wants to bring in 4,700 more drivers to alleviate wider logistics worries ahead of Christmas—the offer in this case is a visa that’s valid from the end of October through February.

The government even sent letters to thousands of Germans living in the U.K., in the mistaken belief that they were all qualified truck drivers—the result of confusion over older German driving licenses, which entitled holders to drive small trucks. Even a security adviser to Germany’s Christian Democrats got a letter:

However, it doesn’t appear that many EU drivers are keen to take up the British offer. According to the Times, the fact that a mere 27 tanker drivers have applied from the EU leaves the country reliant on military personnel for longer than anticipated.

“What that shows is the global shortage,” Johnson said in a BBC interview, while acknowledging that there was a “particular problem in the U.K.”

Wider problem

Countries in the EU are generally able to mitigate worker shortfalls by bringing in people from other member states. As Olaf Scholz, Germany’s likely next chancellor, put it in response to the U.K. crisis: “The free movement of labor is part of the European Union, and we worked very hard to convince the British not to leave the union. They decided different, and I hope they will manage the problems coming from that.”

However, continental Europe may also be facing a truck-driver crisis soon.

“We’re not in as dramatic and desperate a situation yet, but it might come,” Federal Association for Freight Forwarding and Logistics Germany chief Frank Huster told CNBC last week. “The logistics sector lacks qualified personnel such as lorry drivers but also trained locomotive drivers, inland navigation workers, terminal workers, as well as management people….We have less and less people to work in Western markets.”

“For a long time, the image surrounding logistics has been negative,” noted employment lawyer Ann Frances Cooney in a Monday blog post that called for more long-term solutions to falling driver numbers.

“Although a skilled occupation, HGV [heavy goods vehicle] drivers have tended to be low paid and expected to work long hours. In a workforce that is dominated by older men (the average driver age is late 40s), there has been little progress made in balancing gender inequalities and attracting younger staff…Drivers complain about the inadequacy of roadside and on-site facilities. The availability of truck stops has been reduced, and hygiene facilities have traditionally been of a very low standard.”

As Edwin Atema of the Dutch union federation FNV put it in a recent BBC interview: “Drivers from across Europe and even beyond Europe are completely losing all trust in this industry. Long before the corona crisis and Brexit, this industry was sick already; plagued by exploitation, by irresponsible multinationals who drag down prices, which ended up in drivers voting with their feet—simply leaving the industry.”

Bemoaning the U.K.’s lack of a collective union agreement for the road transport industry, Atema added: “The EU workers we speak to will not go to the U.K. for a short-term visa to help the U.K. out of the shit they created themselves.”

Update: This article was updated on Oct. 5 to note that the government’s business department confirmed the report stating there had been 27 applications, not 127 as Johnson claimed.

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