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Business leaders have warned that the British government’s plan to issue 10,500 temporary visas to lorry drivers and agricultural workers to tackle labour shortages does not go far enough to fix the crisis.
The Department for Transport announced a package of measures on Saturday night designed to tackle a widespread shortage of lorry drivers caused by a combination of Brexit and the Covid pandemic.
But business leaders called on ministers to relax restrictions much further to prevent chaos in the run-up to Christmas.
Ruby McGregor-Smith, president of the British Chambers of Commerce, compared the announcement to “throwing a thimble of water on a bonfire”.
“Now some action has been taken, but additional testing will take time and the low number of visas offered is insufficient,” she said.
“Even if these short-term opportunities attract the maximum amount of people allowed under the scheme, it will not be enough to address the scale of the problem that has now developed in our supply chains.”
The lack of drivers has led to gaps on some supermarket shelves and long queues for fuel at petrol stations.
On Saturday, BP, one of the largest filling station operators, estimated that between 10 and 15 per cent of its roughly 1,200 stations across the UK had run out of one or more grades of fuel, with a small number having closed.
In its announcement on Saturday night, the DfT said 5,000 HGV drivers would be added to an existing visa scheme until December 24 to help food and fuel industries with driver shortages during the current “exceptional circumstances”.
A further 5,500 visas for poultry workers will also be made available to avoid further pressures on the food industry.
That announcement represents a major U-turn for ministers who have said repeatedly for weeks that they did not want to relax Britain’s stricter post-Brexit immigration laws.
The government has argued that the long-term solution to the crisis lies in training more UK-based drivers rather than relying on workers from the continent, many of whom returned home after Britain left the EU.
But Boris Johnson, the prime minister, ordered ministers to move swiftly to resolve the growing crisis and end “panic at the pumps” headlines in newspapers.
The government insisted that extra visas would not be the long-term solution to the crisis. “Reform within the industry is vital,” its statement said. “That’s why the government continues to support the industry in solving this issue through improved testing and hiring, with better pay, working conditions and diversity.”
The haulage industry has warned of a skills shortage of more than 90,000 hauliers caused by the lack of EU workers and a lengthy pause in the training of new British drivers during the pandemic.
Andrew Opie, director of food and sustainability at the British Retail Consortium, warned that the number of new visas for foreign HGV drivers was not enough.
“The limit of 5,000 visas will do little to alleviate the current shortfall,” he said. “Supermarkets alone have estimated they need at least 15,000 HGV drivers for their businesses to be able to operate at full capacity ahead of Christmas and avoid disruption or availability issues.”
“To avoid disappointment for millions of households during the festive season we urge the government to extend this programme, both in size and scope,” he said.
Other policy changes designed to ease the crisis include the training of up to 4,000 people as new HGV drivers.
The Department for Education is investing up to £10m to create free “skills boot camps” to train up to 3,000 of the new HGV drivers.
The other 1,000 would be trained through local courses funded by the government’s adult education budget, the government said.
Nearly a million letters will be sent out to all drivers who hold an HGV driving licence, encouraging them to return to the industry.
Examiners from the Ministry of Defence will be deployed to help increase testing capacity for HGV drivers over the next 12 weeks.
Grant Shapps, transport secretary, said: “After a very difficult 18 months, I know how important this Christmas is for all of us and that’s why we’re taking these steps at the earliest opportunity to ensure preparations remain on track.”
Ian Wright, chief executive of the Food and Drink Federation, welcomed what he called the “pragmatic” decision” to expand the visa scheme temporarily.
“This is something UK food and drink manufacturers have asked for over the last few months . . . to alleviate some of the pressure labour shortages have placed on the food supply chain,” he said. “This is a start but we need the government to continue to collaborate with industry and seek additional long-term solutions.”