Imminent UK border changes could add to trucker problems, industry group says


(Reuters) - Changes to Britain's border rules this week which prevent European Union ID cards from being accepted as proof of identity could compound existing issues for freight entering the United Kingdom, a global road transport body said.

Under new immigration rules which come into force on Oct. 1 as part of post-Brexit measures to end freedom of movement, EU nationals will need a passport to enter the United Kingdom.

The International Road Transport Union (IRU) said that, despite working closely with the British government to inform haulers, some drivers were likely to be caught out.

"Aside from not seeing the real benefits of adding this layer of bureaucracy, and potentially affecting already difficult border freight flows post-Brexit, we are also concerned that passports are generally more expensive than ID cards," said Raluca Marian, IRU EU Advocacy Director.

"UK authorities need to implement the change from Friday respecting professional drivers, without unnecessary bureaucracy or causing border or supply chain disruptions that would compound the serious supply chain issues already being seen in the UK due to driver shortages."

The Home Office, the government department that administers immigration policy, said ID cards are some of the "most insecure and abused documents", and the haulage industry has had almost a year to prepare for the changes.

This comes as Britain struggles with a shortage of tens of thousands of truck drivers which have led to severe supply chain issues, with fuel stations running empty in recent days after a spate of panic-buying. read more

Britain left the EU's single market at the beginning of 2021, creating a full customs border with the bloc. However, London did not immediately bring in import checks on goods entering Britain to give businesses time to adjust amid concern they would lead to delays.

Earlier this month, the government said those checks would now not be introduced until next year, citing the COVID pandemic as the reason. 

More than two thousand British gas stations were still dry on Thursday due to a shortage of truck drivers which was starting to disrupt deliveries to pharmacies, while farmers warned a lack of butchers could lead to a massive cull of pigs.

In a chaotic week where fights broke out at gas stations and people filled up old water bottles with petrol, British ministers have repeatedly said the crisis was easing, though they ordered soldiers on Wednesday to start driving fuel tankers.

Ministers have rejected accusations that the trucker shortage was caused by Britain's withdrawal from the European Union, pointing to similar shortfalls elsewhere after COVID-19 lockdowns halted thousands of truck driver tests.

The Petrol Retailers Association (PRA), which represents 65% of Britain's 8,380 forecourts, said members reported on Thursday that 27% of pumps were dry, 21% had just one fuel type in stock and 52% had enough petrol and diesel.

"This is running out quicker than usual due to unprecedented demand," said PRA Executive Director Gordon Balmer, who said he was still hearing of verbal and physical abuse against gas station staff.

Reuters reporters visited 10 petrol stations in London and surrounding areas on Thursday. Three were open. A line of dozens of drivers snaked back from one of the open stations with staff attempting to direct the queue.

Such is the shortage of truckers that pharmacies were being affected.

"The whole supply chain has been impacted from inbound wholesale depot supply down to outward depot deliveries to pharmacies," said a spokeswoman for the association which represents large pharmacy operators.

Besides fuel and medicine, the farming industry warned that hundreds of thousands of pigs may have to be culled within weeks unless the government issues visas to allow more butchers into the country. read more

Transport ministry data indicated that motor traffic had decreased by 6 percentage points on Monday from the previous week to the lowest volume on a non-holiday Monday since July 12. England ended COVID restrictions on July 19.

The disruption, and the spike in prices it is expected to fuel, threatens to undermine Britain's economic growth, projected at 7% this year. read more

Data released by the Office for National Statistics on Thursday showed the economy grew by more than previously thought in the April-June period before what looked like a sharp slowdown more recently as post-lockdown bottlenecks, including the shortage of truck drivers, mount. read more

PIG CULL

The gas station crisis has provoked scorn in some European capitals, with senior politicians suggesting Britain's trucker shortage was a clear consequence of its 2016 referendum decision to leave the EU.

British ministers have denied this, though tens of thousands of EU truckers left during the Brexit maelstrom.

An acute shortage of butchers and slaughterers in the meat processing industry has been exacerbated by COVID-19 and Britain's post-Brexit immigration policy, which has restricted the flow of east European workers.

Lizzie Wilson, policy services officer at the National Pig Association (NPA), said the shortage of butchers meant processors were operating at 25% reduced capacity.

As a result, mature pigs ready for processing are backing up on farms, causing welfare issues.

"There are about 120,000 pigs sat on-farm currently that should have already been slaughtered, butchered, be within the food chain, and eaten by now," said Wilson.

Minette Batters, president of the National Farmers Union, said a cull of up to 150,000 pigs was "potentially a week, ten days away".

Truck drivers have a cautionary message for British Prime Minister Boris Johnson: an acute shortage of drivers is ratcheting up their wages and that will have a knock-on effect on prices for food and gifts in the run-up to Christmas.

An air of chaos has gripped the world's fifth-largest economy in recent days as a deficit of truckers left fuel pumps dry across the land, and a spike in European wholesale natural gas prices tipped energy companies into bankruptcy.

The United Kingdom is short of around 100,000 truckers after tens of thousands returned to the European Union during the Brexit maelstrom and 40,000 truck driver tests were canceled during the COVID-19 lockdowns.

At Clacket Lane service station beside London's M25 orbital motorway, drivers from Britain, France, Germany, Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, Portugal, Romania, Russia, and Turkey were parked up to rest after journeys from every corner of Europe.

Over the faint whiff of sewage, cigarette smoke, and diesel fumes in the truck park, scores of drivers told Reuters in several different tongues that wages would have to rise.

They spoke of a hard and lonely life on the road: filthy showers, high parking fees, nights disturbed by thieves wielding knives, illegal migrants seeking a secret ride, and of the pain of divorce after years spent far from wives and children.

"Wages will have to go up so prices for everything we deliver, everything you buy on the shelves, will have to go up too," said Craig Holness, a 51-year-old British trucker with 27 years of experience, who was parked up for a break.

Rising trucker pay may give an insight into a riddle that is bothering investors: whether or not the world is on the cusp of persistent price rises after the splurge by governments and central banks during the COVID crisis.

Sterling has fallen on fears the trucker shortage could crimp economic growth, forecast at 7% this year. Bank of England Governor Andrew Bailey said on Wednesday he was focused on the inflationary effects from supply shortages including labor.

Hauler companies and recruitment agencies are battling to fill trucker jobs: One was advertising for a heavy goods vehicle (HGV) Class 1 driver for 75,000 pounds ($102,500) per annum, the highest level the recruiter had ever heard of.

"With HGV drivers, we're now paying them 40% more than we were four months ago," Jordan Francis, the commercial director of recruitment agency ProDrive, told Reuters.

He recalled a driver whose pay per hour had increased to 22.50 pounds per hour from 14.00 pounds per hour in March. Sign-on bonuses of 1,000 are being offered too.

'MARRIAGE KILLER'

Holness said the shortage of drivers would not ease any time soon because conditions were so poor that many young people refused to do it.

While trying to snatch some sleep recently near West Bromwich in central England, thieves sliced an 11-foot hole in his canvas causing hours of delay and stress.

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A shopper looks at produce and empty shelves of the meat aisle in Co-Op supermarket, Harpenden, Britain, September 22, 2021. REUTERS/Peter Cziborra

"Who wants to be a lorry driver - you'd be better tapping away on a keyboard wouldn't you? Kids these days don't want to know," said Holness. "I want to get out."

He suggested Johnson, who was educated at Eton, Britain's most exclusive school, and Oxford, its most exclusive university, should spend several days trucking to understand the issues.

"You are just treated like the scum of the earth basically," said Phil, a 52-year-old British truck driver from Malvern in central England, who has just had what he termed a significant pay rise. "Prices will increase."

He said many trucks stops reeked of urine and feces - and the job gave limited time to see family.

"It's a marriage killer," he said.

The government on Sunday announced a plan to issue temporary visas for 5,000 foreign truck drivers. None of the truck drivers interviewed by Reuters thought many would take up the offer.

"It is tough work and youngsters don't want it," said Anton Pogodin, a 37-year-old truck driver originally from Omsk, in Siberia, who now drives from Portugal.

But in Bucharest, some Romanian truckers were tempted by the offer. read more

'BREXIT CHAOS'

British ministers have repeatedly denied that Brexit has caused the trucker shortage but many EU drivers blamed just that for prompting so many eastern European drivers to head for the exit.

"No one else has this kind of problems that you're finding here," said Belgian driver Patrice Rese, 65. "It's because of Brexit."

"Best of luck to you Monsieur Johnson," he quipped.

Miguel Brunel, a 41-year-old driver from Bethune in northern France, questioned the logic of replacing so many British drivers with those from eastern Europe only to then essentially prompt those drivers to leave.

"If they had maintained a market of English drivers rather than replacing them from drivers from Eastern Europe, they wouldn't be in this position," said Brunel in French.

"This is chaos," he said.


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