The number of lorry drivers in Britain has plunged by 53,000 over the past four years with the fall the largest among middle-aged hauliers, according to official figures.
The Office for National Statistics (ONS) said analysis of the annual population survey has revealed an estimated 17% plunge in the number of HGV drivers working in the UK to 268,000 in the year to June, down from a peak of 321,000 in 2016-17.
But industry figures have put the shortage of lorry drivers in the UK at a far higher 100,000.
The ONS report underlines the issues facing the crisis-stricken haulage industry, with an ageing workforce, a shortage of EU nationals and mounting costs and red tape in the wake of Brexit.
The ONS said there were nearly a third fewer (29%) lorry drivers working in the UK aged between 46 and 54 than in the year to June 2017, with a 34,000 drop.
Nearly a third of all hauliers in the UK were aged 56 or over in 2020-21, with just under 20% aged between 19 and 35.
The figures showed the impact of the pandemic on the number of EU drivers working in the UK, with a 12,000 or 30% plunge since 2017.
The number of UK lorry drivers has fallen by 15%, or 42,000, in the same time.
Most of the decline has been seen in the past two years, particularly during the pandemic, which has taken its toll on EU drivers willing to work in the UK.
This has seen record numbers of transport and storage vacancies in the UK – at 52,000 in the three months to the end of September, up 49% up on the January to March 2020 pre-pandemic level, and with HGV drivers making up around 10% of that sector.
The lorry driver shortage is taking its toll across most sectors in the UK, increasingly leaving supermarket shelves bare and recently sparking a crisis on Britain’s petrol forecourts and forcing the army to step in to help with fuel deliveries.
The ONS said a recent survey showed nearly a third (29%) of adults in the UK said they struggled to buy certain groceries, medication or other essentials.
It said the lorry driver shortage was likely to be one of the factors impacting the availability of items.
Retailers are also increasingly reporting issues with global freight costs and availability, with ports in the UK and worldwide turning ships away.
UK businesses have also reported a hit to imports and exports from Brexit, which has led to extra paperwork and higher costs, according to the ONS.
The UK haulage sector is also battling to bring on board more workers, with testing having been impacted by the coronavirus crisis.
ONS data shows that there were 16,022 practical driving test passes of the type required to become an HGV driver in the year ending June 2021, compared with an average of 41,731 a year over the previous five-year period.
The Government has recently allowed temporary visas for EU lorry drivers in a bid to address the shortage, while also changing the driving test requirements among a number of measures to help bring on board more HGV workers.