Fresh breezes carry the scent of spring meadows across the empty motorways as thousands of truckers keep the nation stocked with food and medical supplies.
Long-haul drivers’ journeys have been cut by up to three hours and they have received heartwarming expressions of appreciation from people clapping them on their way from motorway bridges.
But there is also hardship for those not in the essential goods business, and some surprising letdowns including closures of toilets and exceptional reckless driving to contend with. One car driver was recorded at 134mph in a 40mph zone in London, while Gloucestershire police clocked a driver at 122mph on the M5.
But lockdown also brings out the best in people, says Bill Dommett, 62, a driver with C&D South West, based in Chard, Somerset, during a trip with the Guardian onboard.
“You see kids, adults, elderly people waving and clapping and they have little placards. You give a hoot or a smile and you can see they are so happy. I don’t look at myself as anyone special, I’m just a lorry driver, so seeing people appreciate what you are doing although you’ve never been appreciated like that before is really nice. It’s heartwarming and brings a tear to your eye a bit,” says Dommett.
He tells of another incident in the past week when he bought 15 bars of a new variety of Galaxy chocolate for his prison-officer daughter, who says it kept her going after he brought a bar home for her one night.
“The cashier came round and picked up another five bars and handed them to me, saying, ‘That’s from one key worker to another, stay safe and well and hopefully see you next week,’” said Dommett. “It’s just really made me stop. What a gesture.”
Mark Bagley, 45, is a night driver, cabbing a double-decker 60ft truck for the same firm. His usual route is the 340-mile return journey from Chard to a Palletforce distribution centre in Burton upon Trent, where he can drop off or pick up vital supplies ranging from bread, flour and fruit to industrial supplies.
Each way takes about three and a half hours, depending on accidents, bottlenecks and congestion.
Covid-19 has emptied the roads, reminding Bagley of the big open countryside of the US where the only other vehicles are the tractors and combines slowly moving through the crops.
“Before coronavirus, you’d see about 300 vehicles an hour. Now it’s a completely different world. I’ve driven in the States quite a lot and it’s very similar countryside. I thought you’d never see that in this country but when coronavirus hit it was like I was driving in Wisconsin again,” says Bagley.
It is not just business trips and family car journeys that have vanished, but also truck carrying non-essential goods.
“It’s been very spooky,” says Dommett. “If you go to a service station now, there are two or three cars in the car park, no caravans, no coaches.”
But there are upsides too, he says. “It’s so nice to be able to get into your lorry and set the cruising speed at 53 to 56mph and just stay there without having cars in front doing 50mph forcing you to use the gears.”
Like everywhere, there are those flouting the lockdown rules, and Bagley says he has been shocked on one or two occasions.
“The other day I had two bikers on Harley-Davidsons on either side of me – that’s the middle lane doing 80mph and his friend doing the same on the inside of me on the hard shoulder. This is in broad daylight. There was a car in front of me and a truck in front of the car and next thing the bike on the inside swerves in between the car and the truck. I thought: I hope he falls off his bike and breaks his neck. It made me really angry.
“You’ve got a five-year-old girl dying of Covid and you have these 34/35-year-old men messing around with people’s lives on the motorway. It was just depressing to see, especially as you have the electronic matrixes every gantry and bridge saying “Stay home, essential travel only, save lives”. It’s constant, there are no excuses. You don’t drive on the hard shoulder anyway, even at 80mph,” says Bagley.
Lorna Hammond, the haulage firm’s managing director, says business is down 30-40%, forcing her to furlough a matching portion of drivers and park up a third of the fleet.
As expected, she has seen larger volumes in collections and deliveries to supermarkets, including Morrisons’ regional distribution centre in Bridgwater, Somerset, as well as garden furniture and patio tiles. But there have also been some surprises including an increase in orders for hot tubs and pools.
Small breweries have stopped deliveries, while business for a client who supplies wood-burning stoves has plummeted, as fitting the furnaces would involve workers entering a home for non-essential work, which is advised against.
Dommett having a lunch break on the road.
C&D South West also did a twice-weekly run to central London with hotel minibar stocks including water bottles, snack packets and chocolate. The supplier is still trading but the hotel business evaporated overnight.
The decline in custom has also hit drivers. Food is no longer available at service stations, which have also closed toilets and showers.
“I think it’s disgusting,” says Dommett. “We are out on the road the whole time keeping supplies moving, where are you supposed to wash your hands?” he said, underlining the risk that creates of spreading the virus between different locations.
One day Dommett might be in Wolverhampton, another in Middlesbrough or nearer home, picking up or dropping off farm feed. He remembers the outbreak of foot and mouth disease, when everything and everyone entering a farm was disinfected, and cannot believe the cavalier attitude of some when it comes to hygiene and coronavirus.
He thinks some depots might have used Covid-19 as an excuse to close toilets they did not want to provide for drivers in the first place.
A spokesman for the Road Haulage Association (RHA) said: “It goes against health and safety as essentially a lorry driver is at work and should have access to toilets where they collect or deposit loads. We had loads and loads of complaints at the beginning and still get one or two a day. We got on to the Department for Transport and phoned the various depots too.”
Hammond says she tries to keep up morale, giving drivers laminated drawings of rainbows for their windscreens and baking a seven-layer coloured cake for her workers.
While her business is going OK and might be big enough to survive, she fears for the smaller family-run businesses.
The RHA reports that across the industry 46% of trucks are inactive and 25% of drivers have been furloughed.
Paul Mummery, an RHA spokesman, says: “There are a lot of truckers out there who just want to get back to work, even if they are furloughed and that might seem like it’s OK. There’s an anxiety that volumes of trade won’t return and this is a precarious industry anyway.”