For many truck drivers in the UK, the coronavirus pandemic has meant that they have been sidelined due to businesses temporarily closing. Jon from Life Beyond Bricks, a blog sharing experiences of motorhoming with his partner Tash and three cats, found his plans of touring the UK hindered due to COVID-19 and decided to turn his driving talents towards truck driving while they were in lockdown.
Jon has shared his story with us on how he found the experience and what he did to help find a new focus in the pandemic. To read part one of Jon’s story, including obtaining his Category C licence and his experience with testing after 22 years, visit Life Beyond Bricks.
Jon’s Story (Part 2)
Once Jon had secured his Category C licence and applied for his digi-tacho card through the DVLA, he was ready to sign up to some driving agencies:
Lack of Experience = Limited Work
As we were still travelling at this stage, the first two agencies I signed up with were the larger national firms. Sadly, they had a limited amount of work available for HGV class C drivers that have no experience. It seemed that even though I had actually held the Category C licence for over a year and technically had been driving a PHGV daily, this was not taken into consideration by many companies that were looking to hire agency staff.
I left my details with the agencies anyway to find the appropriate placements but after a few weeks of not hearing much, I decided to look at other agencies that were offering work specifically for new-pass drivers.
We were beginning to wind our travels down and head closer to home and, after signing up with some more agencies, I finally got work delivering bulk food orders to restaurants, pubs, cafes and schools. The work, whilst being daunting as it always is starting a new job, was quite enjoyable. I thought to myself if I was doing it every day, I would become very fit and would never need to go to the gym as all the produce was loaded and unloaded by hand.
One thing that became clear was that I needed a proper dedicated truck sat nav so that it would take some of the workload off me. Not having to plan specific routes that avoid height, width, weight, and class of vehicle restrictions is essential. Luckily for us, we have owned a Snooper Ventura (Motorhome and Caravan) sat nav unit for more than three years, which had performed faultlessly during this time. An added bonus is that it has a dash camera built into the unit.
The Ventura unit allows you to set up any size/weight of vehicle, which is great as some motorhomes are based on truck chassis. However, after speaking with Snooper about the different routing algorithms used for their Ventura and Truckmate units, I knew that it would be beneficial to obtain a Truckmate unit in addition to the one we already had. The good thing is for a small fee you can swap the sat nav unit software from Ventura to Truckmate. This meant I could start using our original sat nav solely at work with the view to purchase a newer Ventura unit for the motorhome. This works out great as I want a more permanent fixed solution in the Sonic anyway.
COVID-19 Changed the Plan
As things with coronavirus became more serious, the government took the decision to advise people against social gatherings and going to public places. This meant that the cafes, pubs and restaurants I was delivering to had their custom pretty much dry up overnight. Soon after they said it would be advisable to close these businesses, which was then shortly followed by the school closures. Understandably the work that I was booked on for a week was cancelled, although the agency kept me on standby for any further work.
Things were becoming more volatile by the day and it was soon clear that the work situation was going to be difficult under the current circumstances. Little did we know at this point that it was going to swiftly turn into a life-changing global pandemic. My thoughts quickly turned from trying to find work to earn money to how could I actually help during the pandemic. With my father-in-law being a paramedic, something I felt quite strongly about was helping the NHS, as all the operatives on the front line did not have a choice; they were putting their lives and the lives of their families on the line for us.
Twitter to the Rescue
Looking on Twitter of all places, I could see the NHS supply chain were asking for extra staff in all areas, including truck drivers. This was so they could not only keep up with the unprecedented order volumes from the hospitals, but build in a redundancy to staffing levels in preparation for absences from work if people became unwell. I did a quick search on the internet to find where the nearest NHS supply chain depots were and found that Maidstone and Bridgwater were the closest to our position.
A bit of a commute from the Portsmouth area where we were currently staying, you might say, but at this stage, we actually had two motorhomes. The Dethleffs Pulse we had been lent by the Erwin Hymer Group could not be taken back as all the motorhome dealers had shut down. The plan now was for me to stay in the Sonic close to the supply chain depot during the week and then possibly come back at the weekends.
This also posed as a good time to give the Sonic a decent shakedown after all its upgrades. It also added a safety net as I would potentially be exposed to more risk of the virus whilst I was working. Tash and I could essentially isolate ourselves from each other.
I called Bridgwater depot and found out which driving agencies they used and then quickly called the agency in question. They were very swift in getting me set up within their organisation, within a week I was due to have all the relevant documentation scanned and checks carried out. Then over to Bridgwater to have a driving assessment with the NHS supply chain transport team the very next day.
I arrived the night before the assessment so I had time to prepare and know where I had to go ahead of schedule. Quite nerve-wracking for me really that I had to be assessed but understandable as the drivers have a big responsibility delivering to hospitals under normal circumstances let alone the circumstances we found ourselves in.
A theory test was followed by a drive in one of their 18-tonne rigid trucks. Now I thought the Dethleffs was big, this thing felt massive! It took me back to my driving lessons and test.
Needless to say, the assessment went well and next it was the company induction and all the health and safety aspects that have to be covered. Then they said “When can you start?” and I said I could start the next day so they put me on a 16:00 till 02:00 shift and that was it. I turned up for work the next day. The normal fleet of NHS supply chain trucks are all DAFs but there were also lots of hire vehicles there to help with the extra orders coming in from the hospitals.
Most of the orders being made meant that they had to send two trucks to various hospitals so it gave me a chance to shadow one of the other drivers in my own truck not only to help learn the job, but to get to know where all the loading bays for the various hospitals were. All the drivers and other colleagues were always happy to help as it is always a steep learning curve when you start something totally new.
Finding a New Focus in a Pandemic
Within a week I was being sent out on my own. Good to know they had trust in me and the work was quite enjoyable apart from the circumstances with the virus. My shifts would consist of delivering cages and pallets of medical supplies, including the much-in-demand PPE from the depot to hospitals and doctors surgeries. Finding the loading bays at the hospitals was not always easy as many were not well signposted, most hospitals have multiple routes in and out but not all of them were truck friendly, an advantage of having the Snooper Truckmate sat nav was that I could set up all delivery locations as favourites and if I could not quite remember the route to the loading bays I could always replay the driving footage from the integrated dash camera to jog my memory.
I found that when I was focusing on getting the job done I actually completely forgot what was going on in the outside world. Driving the night shifts, you would expect there to be less traffic, but, due to the lockdown, I was just sharing the roads with other trucks. It was really eerie driving through towns and city centres as they were deserted not just with people but no cars in any of the car parks either.
It was only when I turned the radio on and it was a news broadcast bringing the reality of the situation home, I remembered what was happening.
Taking a Load Off
The Truckmate software was working out very well and I could already notice the difference in routing from the Ventura software, inputting the dimensions, weight, and class of the vehicle was really easy.
Most hospitals are situated in the middle of residential areas so it was helpful in knowing that the sat nav would route me down a higher class of road even if it was a little further. Assisting with the navigation element of the job just takes that bit of workload off you as driving a truck is pretty full-on.