FOOD SHORTAGES are heading our way this autumn unless the UK Government can get its act together and address the crippling labour shortages which are rippling across Scotland’s food supply chain.

Scotland’s red meat processing industry is reporting a 12 per cent shortfall in labour, soft fruit farmers are worried that fruit will be left rotting in their fields due to a shortage of pickers and lorries are being parked up across the country as Scotland faces a shortage of 11,000 drivers.

It is all very well for the UK Government to be pursuing a global trade agenda, but there are issues closer to home which need to be solved quickly if we don’t want to see a return to last spring’s scenes of public panic at the sight of empty supermarket shelves.

During the height of the pandemic, parts of Scotland’s transport network came to a halt, with the aviation industry grounded, train journeys suspended, and ferries cancelled.

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But during this time, Scotland’s network of Heavy Goods Vehicle (HGV) drivers went into overdrive to ensure that our supply chains kept functioning and we could all continue to order goods safely from the click of a button and in the comfort of our own homes.

HGV drivers were responsible for ensuring that PPE equipment was delivered to our hospitals and care homes, they kept our supermarket shelves stocked with food and played an invaluable role in distributing vaccines around the UK to meet ambitious vaccine targets.

Over the past year, more and more people have been turning online for everything from daily groceries to garden furniture, and this has increased demand for delivery drivers, adding pressure to an already diminishing labour pool.

Since the new immigration rules came in to place from January 1, and HGV drivers didn’t meet its skilled labour requirements, the industry has reported losses of 15,000 drivers UK-wide.

However, Brexit and a lack of EU workers to fill these roles isn’t solely to blame for the shortage of drivers. Speaking to haulage companies and drivers last week, I was told that rigid working conditions, red tape, IR35 tax implications, poor facilities and easier job prospects elsewhere were creating a perfect storm for the industry.

The managing director of a haulage firm in Dumfries and Galloway told me that during the pandemic, some of his drivers were treated like second-class citizens – denied rest and wash facilities at service stations and were turned away at warehouses after long journeys with no access to restrooms.

He added that rules and regulations dictating every move lorry drivers make, are strangling the sector, and that many drivers are packing it in as they would rather find a job nearer home where government agencies aren’t “breathing down their necks”.

He has lost four drivers in the last month alone and warned that if the Government doesn’t intervene soon by showing support for the haulage industry, that there would be no industry to speak of in five years’ time.

It doesn’t seem to simply be an issue of increasing wages to attract drivers, a few companies I spoke to reported annual salaries varying between £30,000 and £40,000 but stressed that more flexibility is needed within the industry to make it more family friendly, which they believe will attract more women to apply and widen the drivers pool.

One driver stressed that even before the pandemic that services in the UK were “disgusting” and said that drivers on the continent in places like France and Germany by comparison, had described the services to be closer to four-star hotels.

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His concerns were echoed by Scotland’s director of the Road Haulage Association, Martin Reid, who made the point that truck drivers were hailed as heroes for keeping the wheels of society turning during the pandemic yet were being treated abysmally behind the scenes.

The haulage industry has been butting heads with the UK Government over the need to overhaul the image of the haulage sector to attract and retain workers and Mr Reid pointed out that the Government itself needs to change its rhetoric around the industry as it is too often dismissed as a “big dirty nuisance.”

On the contrary he told me that following a £1.9 billion investment by the industry, 60-70 per cent of the UK fleet has changed to the Euro 6 standard of engines. He explained that these engines are classed as ultra-low emissions and have resulted in a 60 per cent reduction of NOx emissions since 2013.

The Road Haulage Association has called for HGV drivers to be added to the Shortage Occupation List to regain drivers from the EU, but the Home Office’s response so far is that the focus should be on training up a local workforce.

This is an extremely frustrating and idealistic response that doesn’t address the very real challenges which are gripping the country right now. Training came to a halt during the pandemic and less drivers have been able to apply for tests, so this is very much going to be a longer-term solution and one which the haulage sector itself is acting on by recruiting higher numbers of apprentices.

The UK needs to attract HGV drivers fast, if we are to keep the wheels of the economy turning. If not, then we might be relying more heavily on new and emerging trade deals to plug the gap in a neglected food supply chain which has been left to wilt.