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UK government and retailers in emergency talks over lorry driver shortage

The UK government has held emergency talks with retailers, logistics groups and wholesalers as a shortage of lorry drivers threatens to leave gaps on supermarket shelves.

Officials from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) are understood to have discussed potential solutions, including relaxing restrictions on drivers’ working hours and increasing capacity for HGV driving tests and training to help bring in new local drivers.

Defra is also considering putting drivers on the official shortage occupation list to help make it easier to bring in workers from overseas.

Sources said the government department was planning to survey related businesses to try to build support for the potential regulatory changes.

Industry chiefs have warned the UK is facing a summer of food shortages similar to a series of “rolling power cuts” because of a loss of up to 100,000 lorry drivers as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic and Brexit.

Sources said retail representatives on this week’s call with Defra expressed concern that the reports of potential shortages in stores would lead to panic buying and a return of the stockpiling behaviour seen in spring 2020.

There are also fears the problems will worsen once hospitality businesses are able to fully reopen next month.

Truck driving in the UK has been dominated by eastern European drivers in recent years but many have returned home during the pandemic and found it difficult to return. The industry has also blamed changes to the tax treatment of drivers’ pay for damaging recruitment.

The trade group Logistics UK has said almost 30% of its member firms were hunting in vain for drivers.

Tesco, the UK’s biggest food retailer, has said the driver shortages were creating 48 tonnes of food waste each week, the equivalent of two truckloads.

The problem has been around for some weeks but concerns rose as the industry struggled to cope with a sudden surge in demand for salads and other hot-weather foods during the recent heatwave.

“It was a double whammy: no lettuce, and no drivers to get more,” one retail source said.

The lack of drivers is adding to problems with worker shortages throughout the food industry, including in packaging, production facilities and warehouses.

The latest emergency meeting follows a summit with logistics firms and transport ministers 10 days ago to discuss the driver shortage.

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