Diesel News’ European Correspondent, Will Shiers, sends us his dispatches from the UK frontline, where the transport industry coped admirably with COVID-19, giving truck drivers a much-needed PR boost. But for how much longer will they be flavour of the month?
If you’d have told me at the beginning of the year that we’d be hit by a global pandemic, with hundreds of thousands dead, billions in lockdown and oil prices at an all-time low, I would have struggled to believe you.
If you’d gone on to tell me that at the same time there would be people stood on motorway bridges, waving and clapping to show their appreciation to truck drivers, I would have assumed that you were certifiable. But that’s exactly what’s happened!
For decades, the UK road transport industry has been trying to improve its public perception, but to no avail. In a nutshell, the public hates trucks, and nobody wants to drive one for a living.
Despite numerous pro industry bumper stickers, and ‘love the lorry’ campaigns, it seems it’s impossible for ‘Joe public’ to grasp the correlation between the ‘dirty, smelly juggernaut’ holding them up, and the food in their bellies.
Yet, by March 2020, there had been a complete u-turn in opinion, and all of a sudden, drivers were on a par with doctors. So, how did this miraculous turnaround happen, what can the industry gain from its new-found popularity, and how long will it be until truck drivers revert to being hated again? Let’s rewind to the middle of March.
As the first UK COVID-19 deaths were reported, so panic buying ensued. That video of the two Australian women fighting over a trolley full of toilet rolls was replicated all over the UK, and within days the supermarket shelves were stripped bare of anything you could eat or wipe your posterior with.
Although I left it too late to do any panic buying myself, I will admit to bringing home a few extra copies of Commercial Motor magazine (the classified paper stock is particularly soft and absorbent!).
At the time, my 80-year-old mum asked me whether we were all going to starve to death. It was a question that must have been at the backs of lots of people’s minds. I was immediately able to reassure her that this wouldn’t be the case. The road transport industry thrives on adversity. And besides, I’d recently researched an article on road haulage’s role in the Second World War, more dispatches from the UK frontline. It had kept the nation fed then, and it would do it again now.
The UK government was quick to acknowledge the vital part the industry would play throughout the health crisis that was unfolding before us, and took immediate measures to protect it.
In mid-March, as the UK went into lockdown, a temporary relaxation of European Union drivers’ hours rules was implemented. It applied to those vehicles involved in the delivery of food, non-food (personal care and household paper and cleaning) and over-the-counter pharmaceuticals. The daily driving limit was increased from nine to 11 hours, while daily rest requirements were reduced from 11 to nine hours.
Although these changes hit the headlines, and helped to quell public fear, they weren’t that unusual. In fact, driver hour rules have been relaxed several times before, normally to assist in the movement of heating oil during adverse weather conditions or animal carcasses during foot and mouth outbreaks.
At the same time UK schools were closed to all but the children of key workers, which included truck drivers. “I have been driving trucks for 40 years, and this is the first time I have ever been recognised as a key worker,” said one of many drivers who took to social media to express their surprise.
There was a bit of confusion as to whether this applied to absolutely anyone with a heavy goods vehicle (HGV) licence, particularly in my household, where I frequently waved my driving licence under my 10-year-olds daughter’s nose, threatening to send her back to school if she didn’t behave!