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Petrol station closures spark lorry driver row

The closure of some petrol stations has reignited a row over lorry driver shortages in the UK.

A “handful” of BP stations, and a small number of Esso-owned Tesco Alliance stations, were closed on Thursday due to a lack of delivery drivers.

It is estimated that the UK is short of about 100,000 HGV drivers – with gaps made worse by the pandemic and Brexit.

Downing Street said there was “no shortage of fuel in the UK and people should continue to buy fuel as normal”.

The Road Haulage Association (RHA) has urged the government to relax visa restrictions for foreign workers to ease the driver shortage.

But the government said it wanted employers to make “long-term investments in the UK domestic workforce instead of relying on labour from abroad”.

It added that it was “working with sector leaders to understand how we can best ease particular pinch points” and that “similar challenges are being faced by other countries around the world”.

While the UK does not lack petrol and diesel at refineries, getting it to forecourts has been a problem in some areas.

It is the latest problem caused by driver shortages, which have already led to supply problems in other industries, including supermarkets.

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The RHA’s Rod McKenzie told BBC Breakfast more drivers leave the profession each week than join it.

He said: “It’s as simple as this: everything we get in Britain comes on the back of a truck.

“So if there is a shortage of HGV drivers – and there is by 100,000 – then it is inevitable that we are not going to get all the things we want when we want them.”

“It is not a case of running out – and people should not panic buy,” he added.

He warned there would be glitches “because the supply chain on which we all depend is creaking”.

On foreign workers, he told BBC Two’s Newsnight: “We’ve asked for a short-term measure – it’s very short-term – to allow drivers onto the shortage occupation list, and look at seasonal visas for overseas drivers, not European necessarily.”

Supermarket Iceland – which is about 100 drivers short – joined Morrisons and Ocado in calling for the government to add HGV drivers to the list of shortage occupations.

That would allow foreign workers to apply for skilled worker visas to fill the current gaps.

“I think the solution – even if it’s temporary – is very, very simple,” said Iceland managing director Richard Walker. “Let’s get HGV drivers onto the skilled worker list.”

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Mr McKenzie said that, on top of a historic shortage of drivers, the industry had lost 20,000 European drivers due to Brexit, while the pandemic had forced 40,000 driver training tests to be cancelled.

Businesses across the food, fuel and construction sectors have been warning about driver shortages for months.

BP temporarily closed a number of petrol stations earlier in summer, when driver shortages also caused short-term supply problems for McDonald’s, Nandos, and the pub chain Wetherspoons.

Some councils have also been forced to cancel bin collections.

On Thursday, BP – which has 1,200 petrol stations in the UK – said it was working hard to address the latest issues, and was prioritising getting fuel to the busiest service stations such as those on motorways.

Esso said that a “small number” of its 200 Tesco Alliance retail sites were affected on Thursday, and apologised to customers for any inconvenience.

The Petrol Retailers Association, which represents independent forecourts across the UK, recommended motorists keep enough fuel in the tank to reach alternative filling stations in the “rare instance” that fuel is not available at the first one they visit.

Survey findings about why there are driver shortages
image captionA survey by the Road Haulage Association of its members this year reported a number of reasons for the shortage

Speaking on BBC Question Time on Thursday evening, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps suggested visa changes would not solve the problem, but said nothing had been ruled out.

He said the “bottleneck” had been caused by getting new drivers qualified and bringing people back into the job market after the pandemic.

He also said working conditions “hadn’t been pleasant” and that the government was “happy to see” higher salaries being offered to drivers.

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But shadow justice secretary David Lammy said visas were needed in various sectors, telling Mr Shapps: “You promised that immigration would come down and you know that it will need to go up if we are to deal with these problems.”

Conservative MP Andrew Bridgen said there was “an endemic problem with retention and recruitment” in the industry.

“We’re actually not short of HGV drivers per se – we’ve got 600,000 people who are qualified to drive those big trucks, but only 300,000 people chose to work in the industry,” he told BBC Newsnight.

“Pay and conditions have been suppressed for a very long term by bringing in EU migrants who are willing to work for those wages and conditions.”

Mr Bridgen suggested the industry needed to modernise and improve working conditions to retain young drivers.

The average age of a heavy good vehicle (HGV) driver is 55, with less than 1% under the age of 25, according to the Road Haulage Association.

In its recent survey of 616 hauliers, retiring colleagues and Brexit topped the list of reasons behind the driver shortages.

Respondents also cited tax changes to rules known as IR35, which have made it more expensive for hauliers from elsewhere in Europe to work or be employed in the UK.

In recent weeks, the Department for Transport has made it quicker for HGV drivers to get their licences, but the RHA criticised the changes as a risk to road safety.

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