The haulage industry has warned that government plans to shake up the HGV driving testing process would not provide a “quick fix” to the growing shortage of truckers that has hit UK supply chains. Grant Shapps, transport secretary, is hoping to set out as early as Thursday details of a faster testing system aimed at increasing the number of lorry drivers to solve the crisis. Trade bodies have estimated that a combination of the pandemic and Brexit has left the UK with a shortfall of about 90,000 HGV drivers, leading to shortages of some products. As a result retailers and hauliers have had to push up the wages, leading to inflationary pressures in the sector. Prime minister Boris Johnson has ordered ministers to make a priority of the issue amid warnings that shortages will get worse in the run-up to Christmas. But the government has resisted calls from hauliers to give foreign truckers an exemption from post-Brexit immigration rules that bar them from being hired in order to fill help fill the gap.

Instead ministers have urged the industry to recruit and train more British-based workers. “If we gave visas to one industry, we’d immediately have a dozen other industries knocking down the door,” said one official. The shortage is due to a combination of UK-based drivers quitting the business during the pandemic and immigrant truckers going home; at the same time testing was suspended, stopping new drivers from replacing them. This compounded the exodus of EU truckers due to Brexit, who cannot be replaced due to the new immigration rules. Ministers are expected to streamline the qualifications required to drive so-called class C large rigid lorries and class C & E heavy goods vehicles into a single test. At present those wanting to become lorry drivers have to get a car licence, a provisional class C licence and then the full C licence, before applying for the provisional class C & E licence and then going on to pass that test. The industry also expects the government to allow another element of the tests — showing an ability to conduct manoeuvres such as reversing — to be carried out without the current requirement for a driving examiner. Duncan Buchanan, head of policy at the Road Haulage Association, welcomed the plans but warned that the changes to the testing would not be sufficient to solve the current crisis. “It’s helpful but it’s not a quick fix.”

The new regime could allow up to 3,000 HGV tests per week. But at a pass rate of 56 per cent that would mean the changes would take two years to fill the 90,000 truckers jobs. The RHA said the only way to fix the problem was to grant an exemption to hire foreign drivers, allowing them to try to replace temporarily the estimated 20,000 EU truckers who have left. It also wants ministers to consider whether changes to the “Drivers Certificates of Professional Competence” — which require testing of existing drivers every five years — could be altered to reduce the bureaucracy in the industry. Shane Brennan, chief executive of the Cold Chain Federation, welcomed the fact that ministers had moved quickly to implement the changes, but it remained to be seen how they would be made operational. He warned that the UK’s Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency was “increasingly dysfunctional” and was struggling with staffing issues and the post-Covid testing backlog, and that the changes did not obviate the need for a temporary visa fix.