25 September 2020

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Duncan Buchanan, policy director, Road Haulage Association on the issues facing the logistics sector and how hauliers have risen to the challenge.

How has life been at the RHA working through the coronavirus pandemic?

We’ve all had to operate from home, which has worked well, even though they have been very long days. Initially – as a trade body – we went into an emergency mode, seeking to find ways to keep the supply chain going. We were talking across all levels of Government, producing evidence of what measures needed to be put in place to maximise throughput of medicines and food.

Faced with panic-buying and a medical crisis, we spent a lot of time looking at measures that enabled the transport industry to support society as a whole.

What have been the biggest challenges for the RHA in the past six months?

Issues came to light early on, such as driver’s hours regulations, which we – along with other trade bodies – got Government to take action on. There were also health and safety and driver welfare issues as well as the suspension of the London Lorry Control Scheme, which covers HGV movements at night and weekends.

What was the main goal of the initial set of steps taken?

All of these decisions were designed to make supermarket supply and medicine distribution easier – and it worked! Within a very small period of time, the panic-buying subsided, which is testament to the logistics industry and something that the RHA worked very hard on to achieve.

What were the next steps, after ensuring food and medicine delivery weren’t disrupted?

Since mid-May, we’ve been concentrating on the recovery phase. As a trade body we’ve been looking at what we can do to recover, which is where we have really got into the deeper issues.

Some of the most challenging of these issues have been around regulations. Roadworthiness testing, for example, was a major problem. The suspension of this testing, when transport fleets wanted to run safely and operate within the law, was a major piece of work for us to get around. Driver medicals were also a major effort and took an extraordinary amount of time to work through and get solutions for.

What have been the biggest concerns for the RHA and the industry, post-lockdown?

Recovery from the bureaucracy has been far slower than it should have been. In supermarkets, the same staff have continued to work the pandemic and yet we couldn’t get roadworthiness testing to carry on. We want the vehicles to be safe on the road and it’s been a major issue.

The other huge problem has been a hangover from decisions taken fairly early by Government over road space reallocation. It’s a growing concern because we’ve got roads being narrowed, loading zones being removed and congestion being engineered onto the road network to create cycle lanes.

What will be the biggest item on the RHA agenda as life attempts to return to normal?

Roads are being managed based on an idea of how our cities can operate mainly with bikes and this situation is going to be a major issue for the RHA and the haulage industry over the coming months because, as we see more and more people coming back onto the roads, conditions will be very challenging.

Local authorities have seen the downturn in people moving about and taken road space away from vehicles to the point where they are artificially creating congestion. Low traffic neighbourhoods are part of the problem and the way main roads are being managed creates pollution as well as problems. Going forward, we need to manage our roads for all road users and not just the 1% who cycle nationally.

Other than coronavirus, what other issues are you addressing?

Quite frankly, on Brexit, progress in the last six months has been slower than it should have been. I don’t blame Covid-19 for that, because everyone has been working through it, but parts of the Government machinery have failed to listen consistently over the past four years to what is practically needed to run a border with customs in it for road haulage. 

We have been dealing with institutional inertia for the whole period and, in the past six months, we’ve seen a step up in activity. But what’s being proposed are the same solutions and should have been on the table two or three years ago.

Now we’re seeing some of these systems in early forms it’s not encouraging. I think SMART Freight [the IT system intended to ensure the logistics sector has the correct paperwork for travel to and from Europe] as we currently see it, is going to be ineffective. And that’s based on the latest information that suggests it won’t be ready in time.

What does the RHA propose as an alternative?

The Goods Vehicle Movement Service (GVMS) is the right system and follows a model that we and some of our members suggested to HMRC two and a half years ago.

What is your prediction of how things will play out next year?

The industry will do everything it can to keep the goods flowing. It’s what we do – it’s what we did during the pandemic and it’s what we will do now. But I expect the disruption this time to be far worse than the disruption to the logistics and supply chain that happened with Covid-19.

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