Lesley Griffiths MS, Minister for Rural Affairs and North Wales, and Trefnydd
The food chain is being impacted by staff shortages across the chain and the shortage of HGV drivers is of significant concern. HGV drivers are critical to effective and timely food distribution between farms and manufacturers, transporting ingredients and other items essential to food manufacturing, delivering processed product to distribution centres and onward to retailers.
There are many factors happening in parallel and contributing to the shortages. The pandemic saw many hauliers repatriate to the EU last year. From January of this year, repatriated drivers were no longer eligible to return to the UK as the occupation is not on the Home Office’s Skills Shortage Occupation list. Those with settled status were sometimes reluctant to return due to quarantine requirements.
The Covid-19 lockdown also put HGV driving tests on hold, creating a backlog reported at 30,000 applicants which will take some time to clear. In April, tax rules changed meaning a number of self-employed hauliers were switched to employed status and this would appear to have put additional strain on haulage company budgets, leading to higher haulage prices on key routes.
Agency drivers are an important part of the total resource and now appear in shorter supply.
The requirement through contact tracing for drivers and other food industry workers to isolate has also contributed to the shortages.
The consequences of a driver shortage are far reaching and can contribute to more food waste and disruption of food supplies into food charities. There is upward pressure on driver wages which is likely to filter through to food price inflation.
I met again with the major retailers last month and all had significant concerns about the shortages in the workforce and the driver problem in particular. They also raised issues on delays in testing for HGV drivers
I met with George Eustice, DEFRA Secretary of State, in July to express my concerns and also my frustration with the UK Government’s stance, at that time, that the problem should largely be resolved by the industry.
The situation is slowly improving. The restrictions on delivery curfews have been relaxed and also on driver hours. The testing regime has been speeded up and more flexibility introduced on the training allowing a HGV licence to be achieved in a single test. There is now the option of a more basic licence to allow the driving of larger Vehicles up to 7.5 tonnes following the removal of an EU rules constraint. HGV drivers had been diverted into driving these smaller Vehicles given the surge in online deliveries. Defra are now considering adding HGV drivers to the list of shortage occupations for immigration purposes, however, no firm decisions have yet been reached.
The resolution of the problem of a shortage of HGV drivers and wider food chain worker shortages is largely the responsibility of the UK Government, including its immigration rules. The Welsh Government is doing all it can to alleviate the situation including being the first UK nation to remove the contact tracing isolation requirement on 7 August for twice vaccinated individuals.
The so called pingdemic would not appear to have added significantly to the disruption in the meantime. There have been gaps on supermarket shelves and less choice of products but any shortages are being managed and the public has been sensible and not resorted to panic buying.
There are longer-term issues to address in relation to securing the workforce we need in the food industry in Wales from primary production through to retail and food service. In part, this is dependent on ensuring the industry is a good place to work, paying fair wages and providing training and skills development resulting in rewarding careers. Officials and the Food Industry Board will continue to work towards this goal during this term of Government.
This statement is being issued during recess in order to keep members informed. Should members wish me to make a further statement or to answer questions on this when the Senedd returns I would be happy to do so.