Richard North, 30/09/2021  

There comes a time in any a crisis when the narrative starts to congeal. Most of what the media have to say has been said, and much of what it should have said hasn't been addressed. The agenda gets repetitive, stale and boring.

When it comes to the so-called "fuel crisis", I think we're very close to that point, if not actually there. Amid reports that the queues are abating, the issue has slid down the batting order, so much so that some newspapers are even finding Starmer's speech more interesting.

This was always going to be, especially when the event is totally without substance. There is no fuel shortage and only a slight and temporary shortfall in tanker driver numbers. To that extent, this is an almost exact parallel to the great toilet roll shortage, with supermarket shelves stripped bare while warehouses were groaning with stock.

Part of the problem has been the insistence of (most of) the media lumping tanker drivers – where there is no significant shortage - with the broader HGV driver workforce, where there are serious gaps in the establishment, with many unfilled vacancies.

The confusion has been actively promoted by the industry itself, which has been exploiting the ensuing disruption to leverage concessions from the government on immigrant labour.

Nevertheless, this cynical ploy has only been partially successful. It is unlikely that we will see a substantial inflow of foreign drivers – other than, perhaps, of enthusiastic Nigerians - and none of the structural problems in the haulage industry have been resolved.

However, despite the usual lacklustre performance of the media, some people are a little bit wiser than they were about the problems inherent in the industry. Some drivers have even been given a platform in the legacy media, to complain about the poor conditions, This is unlikely to have happened without the crisis atmosphere.

Not a few people now understand that the HGV driver shortage has been a long time in the making, pre-dating Brexit by a number of years. And while this blog has focused on 2014-15, when the government was being lobbied to take action to head off the shortage, the genesis goes back a lot further.

This interesting report, for instance, goes back to July 2007, when an industry dominated by white, middle-aged men was facing the prospect of having 80,000 of them retiring within ten years.

Even then, the fear was that this would "leave a large hole to plug", at a time – it was said - when haulage firms were having trouble recruiting. The industry body overseeing lorry driver training in the UK, Skills for Logistics (SfL), predicted that as many as 24,000 new recruits would be needed each year.

From the perspective of 14 years ago, the reported - Denise Winterman, writing for the BBC News Magazine – acknowledged that the situation "could affect us all". However, she remarked that, "the doomsday scenario of empty supermarket shelves is dismissed". But, she wrote, "if firms have to ramp up pay to recruit drivers, that cost could trickle down to the consumer".

From that end of the tunnel, though, she had not appreciated that wages would actually be squeezed. Transport operations would recruit foreign drivers to fill the gaps, their lower wages having the perverse effect of driving out indigenous drivers who were not prepared to work for the sums on offer.

Winterman's mission at that time was to report on how the incipient labour shortage had forced the industry "to take a long, hard look at itself" and ask why half of the population felt excluded from taking a job as an HGV driver. Then, she wrote, only 1.3 percent of the UK's lorry drivers were female.

It is germane to remind ourselves why lorry-driving had become a male-dominated occupation. In the past, when lorries had crash gear boxes, no power steering and cable actuated drum brakes – and many had no electric starters, requiring a crank-handle to start – driving a lorry required brutal strength.

Many lorries carried assistants. One job of these brave souls was to run behind the vehicles when they were climbing steep hills, carrying a chock to wedge behind a wheel when power ran out, and the brakes faded, to stop it rolling backwards. With such vehicles, you could only select first gear from stationary, and if the lorry couldn't make it in second, the driver was in real trouble. Stopping the beast to change down could take every ounce of strength of a strong man.

But, with the advent of more powerful vehicles, with electric starters, servo brakes, power steering, even the largest of lorries can be handled by a female of average strength, as Winterman found. "Turning the wheel takes less effort than in my Punto", she remarked, "which lacks power steering and elicits beads of sweat when parking at the supermarket".

Despite the ease with which lorries could be driven, though, it became clear that the attempt to attract more women was a dismal failure. From another report by the BBC, this one in September 2021, we find that the proportion of female drivers had dropped to a mere one percent.

The same report, incidentally, had Danny Hobbs, managing director at recruitment firm StaffCo Direct, asserting that the driver shortage crisis had been "coming for the last five if not 10 years". Michael Race, the BBC reporter in this instance, might have benefitted from searching his employer's own website.

Also profiled was an RHA survey on hauliers views on the reasons for the driver shortage. But, regardless of the reality that the crisis would have occurred with or without Brexit, there will always be those, such as the Guardian's Jonathan Freedland, who insists that Brexit is to blame – even for the petrol "shortage". Nothing will change their views.

With the legacy media getting bored with lorry drivers and even the fuel crisis, though, attempts are being made to broaden the issue. The Times is running a front page story, declaring: "Prepare for a nightmare at Christmas, shoppers told amid fuel crisis".

Many families will find they cannot get a turkey for Christmas Day and presents under the tree may not meet expectations, with delays to the import of toys, bikes and electrical items, we are told. The Telegraph, on the other hand, is running a story on how fuel is being diverted from business fleets to forecourts, but manages to tie that in with fears about online deliveries.

Most papers, though, have been carrying reports about Next boss, Lord Wolfson – a strong supporter of Brexit – whingeing about how dumping freedom of movement has begun to affect his company's warehouse and logistics operations, threatening to derail Christmas shopping deliveries, and pushing up prices.

Such is his perception and grip, that the Telegraph has him calling for a "more decisive" approach to the acute shortage of lorry drivers, saying that the current situation "was foreseen, and widely predicted for many months".

For "many months" read 14 years, but then we don't expect mere captains of industry and commerce to represent a pinnacle of knowledge. Rather, alongside the political and media elites, they dominate the summit of that towering pyramid of ignorance – the higher they go, the less they know.

But, at least, we can see the direction of travel. As the petrol queues shrink, they will be replaced by the next crisis - Christmas queues. The Brexit drama can continue unabated, and the remainers will be happy bunnies.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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