'Strictly time limited' easing of visa rules considered to ease lack of HGV drivers amid shortages

ITV News Reporter Charlotte Cross has the latest, with a government announcement expected as soon as this weekend

The government is considering temporary measures to tackle the shortage of HGV drivers which has led to queues at service stations amid worries of shortages. No 10 insisted on Friday night that any measures introduced would be “very strictly time-limited” amid reports that Boris Johnson had allowed ministers to relax UK immigration rules to allow more foreign drivers into the country. And although Downing Street would not confirm whether any decisions had been made, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps earlier promised to “move heaven and earth” to get the situation solved.

It comes as panic buying has prompted emergency services to urge drivers to be "sensible" about refuelling and only do so if they need to.

Lincolnshire Police said in a statement on Saturday morning: "We have received reports this morning of long queues at some petrol stations in the county.

"This is a potential hazard for vehicles making other journeys, and may cause difficulties for emergency services trying to reach people in need.

"While we appreciate that some people may be particularly keen to fill up their vehicles this weekend, we would respectfully ask motorists to be sensible when making judgements about joining a queue at a petrol station.

"If it is too long, consider returning at a different time."

South Central Ambulance service said its crews have had to join the queues with others to refuel - which in some cases has taken some time.

Some petrol stations have pumps out of service. Credit: ITV News

The disruption has prompted the Confederation of British Industry to call on ministers to establish a task force on the same level as the Cobra emergency committee to deal with supply issues which have seen petrol forecourts close and empty shelves in supermarkets.

And there have been warnings that disruption to Christmas preparations will be “inevitable” if progress is not made to solve the shortfall of around 90,000 lorry drivers. Esso, BP and Tesco petrol forecourts have been affected by challenges getting petrol deliveries. BP said that around 20 of its 1,200 petrol forecourts were closed due to a lack of available fuel, with between 50 and 100 sites affected by the loss of at least one grade of fuel.

Analysis from ITV News Political Editor Carl Dinnen on what Downing Street has said

I’m told that Downing Street’s “time-limited measures” is essentially code for allowing in foreign drivers to try and fix this problem.

However, if the government does allow lorry drivers in, a broader political issue will be sparked. There is a list of shortages in a variety of industries and they could soon all be knocking on the government’s door asking for the same treatment.

A “small number” of Tesco refilling stations have also been impacted, said Esso owner ExxonMobil, which runs the sites.

And on Friday the EG Group, which has 341 petrol stations in the UK, said it was imposing a £30 limit on customers “due to the current unprecedented customer demand for fuel”. Meanwhile, around one in six adults in Britain said they were not able to buy essential food items at some point during the past two weeks due to products not being available, according to a survey by the Office for National Statistics.

The politics of the crisis is "deeply tricky", says ITV News' Carl Dinnen

A Downing Street spokesperson said: “We have ample fuel stocks in this country and the public should be reassured there are no shortages.

“But like countries around the world we are suffering from a temporary Covid-related shortage of drivers needed to move supplies around the country. “We’re looking at temporary measures to avoid any immediate problems, but any measures we introduce will be very strictly time-limited.

“We are moving to a high-wage, high-skilled economy and businesses will need to adapt with more investment in recruitment and training to provide long-term resilience.”

The Financial Times reported that the prime minister had become frustrated with negative headlines over the situation, and had given ministers the go-ahead to temporarily lift visa restrictions for foreign drivers.

Some petrol stations have pumps out of service. Credit: ITV News

The transport secretary earlier tried to dissuade drivers from panic buying petrol, although there have been queues at petrol stations across the country. Grant Shapps insisted there is no shortage of fuel at refineries in the UK - the issue is suppliers' capacity to distribute it.

He told ITV News the government will "move heaven and earth" to avert a fuel crisis in the UK, with "all manner of measures" being considered - as the UK battles a shortage of 100,000 HGV drivers.

Andrew Opie, director of food and sustainability at the British Retail Consortium, said: “HGV drivers are the glue which hold our supply chains together. “Without them, we are unable to move goods from farms to warehouses to shops.

“Currently, the UK faces a shortfall of around 90,000 HGV drivers and it is consumers who ultimately suffer the consequences. “Unless a solution can be found in the next 10 days, it is inevitable that we will see significant disruption in the run-up to Christmas.”

BP Fuel lorry being is checked at its Coryton Bulk Terminal Credit: Gareth Fuller/PA

But Tony Danker, CBI director-general, said: “After speaking with hundreds of business leaders this week, it’s clear there’s a total mindset shift from growing to coping.

"This is now a major threat to our recovery and the government needs to step up its response to a new level of both speed and boldness. “Government is right to keep up the pressure on companies to adapt and not rely on immigration long term, but temporary visas are the only way to alleviate the disruption of shortages in critical skilled parts of the economy in weeks and months instead of years. “Getting skills programmes right immediately is key to ensuring that these measures are only needed temporarily. “Establishing a crisis management taskforce to move quickly – with both business and government around the table – will ensure government is far more informed about the nature and scale of the challenges; can formulate responses fast; and is able to get the support of the prime minister and the Cabinet to take action required.

"We stand ready to support the government to do this.”