Tankers on their way to Suffolk as the government unveils action plan
- Credit: Paul Geater
Petrol stations across Suffolk are expecting fuel tankers to arrive in the next 48 hours, as the end of the county's petrol shortage looks to be in sight.
Yesterday (Saturday, September 25) forecourts across Suffolk — from the A12 to the A140 — were running short of fuel, with some even forced to close.
Today even more petrol stations have reported shortages — with one staff member said they had received more than 200 phone calls from worried customers.
The staff member, who works at a filling station in mid Suffolk, said the tanks had run dry and she did not know when the next delivery was due.
"We're just waiting on a text from the delivery company," she said. "Hopefully it will be tomorrow — but it's just a waiting game until we get the delivery."
Elsewhere, one fuel station on the A140 is expecting a delivery to arrive this evening (Sunday, September 26).
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In Ipswich some filling stations had run out of fuel entirely and were not expecting fuel deliveries until Tuesday, but others reported that customers were still able to fill up and tankers were expected on Monday.
The coronavirus pandemic is seen to have exacerbated a global shortage of lorry drivers, although there have been long-term issues in the UK with labour numbers amid an ageing workforce, low wages and poor truck stop conditions.
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In response to the crisis, the government has announced a temporary visa scheme that will allow 5,000 HGV drivers and 5,500 poultry workers to take up employment in the UK until Christmas Eve.
The scheme is aimed at easing shortages at petrol stations, as well as ensuring that shelves remain well stocked in the run up to Christmas.
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said the changes, with the visas available from next month, would “ensure preparations remain on track” for the festive season.
Mr Shapps said: “This package of measures builds on the important work we have already done to ease this global crisis in the UK, and this Government continues to do everything we can to help the haulage and food industries contend with the HGV driver shortage.
“We are acting now but the industries must also play their part, with working conditions continuing to improve and the deserved salary increases continuing to be maintained in order for companies to retain new drivers.
“After a very difficult 18 months, I know how important this Christmas is for all of us and that’s why we’re taking these steps at the earliest opportunity to ensure preparations remain on track.”
In addition, Mr Shapps refused to rule out bringing in the Army to drive fuel tankers.
Grant Shapps, asked on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show whether the Government planned to bring in Army drivers, said: “We will do whatever is required.
“The Army are going to at the moment make sure we are testing HGV drivers, that’s where the bottleneck is.”
The DfT said it recognised that importing foreign labour “will not be the long term solution” to the problem and that it wanted to see investment poured into establishing a robust domestic workforce.
Officials said the government continued to support solving the high vacancy rate through improved testing and hiring, with better pay, working conditions and diversity.
However, a spokesman for the Road Haulage Association cautioned that European lorry drivers will be asking themselves “is it worth it” as they weigh up the benefits of working in the UK for three months against the hassle of moving.
Rod McKenzie, managing director of policy and public affairs at the RHA, said it was good that the Government was “doing something” to recruit more drivers but warned it did not go far enough.
“Twelve weeks is an incredibly short period of time if you are working in Poland or somewhere else in Europe,” he told the PA news agency.
“They will see an advert tomorrow if they are lucky, they’ll apply for the job, they will need to find somewhere to live in Britain, assuming they get a visa, and then they will have to hand their notice in wherever they are working now.
“You can work it out that 12 weeks suddenly becomes 10 weeks, becomes eight weeks and then becomes ‘crikey, is it worth it?’.
“We will have to see how much of a take-up there is, and 5,000, as others have said in the media, is a very small number when you are talking about 100,000 shortage.”
Government officials said the loan of MoD examiners to work alongside Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency (DVSA) employees would help put on “thousands of extra tests” over the next 12 weeks.
Meanwhile, nearly one million letters will be landing in the coming days on the doormats of people with HGV licences to encourage those who have left the industry to return.
The letter will set out the steps the haulage sector is taking to improve industry conditions, including increased wages, flexible working and fixed hours, according to the Department for Transport.
Another long-term measure to turn the situation around will see the Department for Education plough up to £10 million into creating new “skills bootcamps” to train up to 3,000 more people to become HGV drivers.
The free, intensive courses will train drivers to undertake an entry level HGV licence (Category C) or a more advanced course to operate heavier and longer lorries (Category C&E).
Another 1,000 people are expected to be trained through courses accessed locally and funded by the government’s adult education budget.
Those accessing medical and HGV licences through the adult budget in the 2021/22 academic year will have their qualifications paid for by the state, with the funding backdated to anyone who started one of these qualifications on or after August 1.
More DVSA examiners will also be freed up to conduct lorry driver tests via a law change to allow driving examiners at the three emergency services and the MoD to be able to conduct driving tests for one another.
Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi said: “HGV drivers keep this country running.
“We are taking action to tackle the shortage of drivers by removing barriers to help more people to launch new well-paid careers in the industry, supporting thousands to get the training they need to be road ready.”
Environment Secretary George Eustice said: “We have listened to concerns from the sector and we are acting to alleviate what is a very tight labour market.”
The government said it had already streamlined the process for new HGV drivers while increasing the number of driving tests available to allow for an extra 50,000 tests to take place per year.