Plans to offer 5,000 three-month visas for foreign HGV drivers are “insufficient” and the “equivalent of throwing a thimble of water on a bonfire” to address supply issues in the lead up to Christmas, business groups have said.
As well as lorry drivers, the government's temporary visa scheme will see 5,500 poultry workers allowed to take up employment in the UK until Christmas Eve, in a bid to keep supermarket shelves stocked with turkeys and tackle delivery difficulties at petrol stations.
The intervention came amid scenes of lengthy queues at petrol stations after a shortage of fuel tanker drivers forced some retailers to shut their pumps and ration sales.
The shortage of heavy goods vehicle drivers has been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic, although there have been long-term issues in the UK with labour numbers amid an ageing workforce, low wages and poor truck stop conditions.
Speaking on Sunday, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps admitted he had done something he “didn’t necessarily want to do” in allowing foreign workers to fill the workforce gaps, having only on Friday rallied against the idea of temporary visas, but said the changes would “ensure preparations remain on track” for the festive season.
Mr Shapps also accused a haulage group of sparking petrol station queues by leaking comments from BP bosses about supply concerns.
People queued for fuel from dawn, while some pumps in parts of the country ran dry, ITV News Correspondent Rachel Younger reported on Saturday's News At Ten
Retailers had warned the government that it had just 10 days to save Christmas from “significant disruption” due to a shortfall of about 90,000 drivers in the freight sector.
Industry groups the Food and Drink Federation and Logistics UK both welcomed the visa changes, with federation chief Ian Wright calling the measures “pragmatic”.
While industry groups such as the British Retail Consortium (BRC) and the British Chamber of Commerce (BCC) criticised the scope of the package of measures, others saw them as a step back from the prime minister’s ambitions to create a high-wage, high-skilled post-Brexit economy.
BCC President Baroness McGregor-Smith said the changes were the “equivalent of throwing a thimble of water on a bonfire” as it would “not be enough to address the scale of the problem”.
“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," she said.
The Conservative peer added that consumers and businesses faced “another less than happy Christmas” due to the visa offer being “insufficient”.
Will temporary visas for foreign HGV drivers solve the problem? - ITV News Correspondent Rebecca Barry
Andrew Opie, a director at the BRC, said the limit of 5,000 HGV visas would do “little to alleviate the current shortfall” and called for visas to be extended to “all sectors of the retail industry”.
He added: “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.”
The relaxation of immigration rules was welcomed by other industry groups, however, with Food and Drink Federation chief Ian Wright calling the measures “pragmatic”, while Logistics UK said it showed Government had listened to hauliers’ concerns.
Richard Walker, managing director at Iceland supermarket, called the announcement “critical” and pushed for shop staff and other key workers to be fast-tracked past petrol pump queues.
The supermarket boss said: “Until this eases, key workers including food retail workers need to be prioritised at the pumps so that we can keep hospitals operating and food shops open, and the nation safe and fed.”
Two care workers tell ITV News Correspondent Rachel Younger they were stuck in a queue at a petrol station for 40 minutes in the middle of their shift
As well as the visa changes, the Department for Transport (DfT) said it planned to train 4,000 more lorry drivers through both a £10 million investment in skills camps and established adult education budgets, with some of those studying for HGV licences eligible to have their courses paid for by the state.
The Ministry of Defence is also stepping in to provide examiners for lorry driving tests as ministers look to steadily increase the size of the workforce.
Officials said the loan of MoD examiners to work alongside Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency (DVSA) employees would help put on “thousands of extra tests” over the next 12 weeks.
Meanwhile, nearly one million letters will be landing in the coming days on the doormats of people with HGV licences to encourage those who have left the industry to return.
The letter will set out the steps the haulage sector is taking to improve industry conditions, including increased wages, flexible working and fixed hours, according to the Department for Transport.
Another 1,000 people are expected to be trained through courses accessed locally and funded by the government’s adult education budget.
Those accessing medical and HGV licences through the adult budget in the 2021/22 academic year will have their qualifications paid for by the state, with the funding backdated to anyone who started one of these qualifications on or after August 1.
More DVSA examiners will also be freed up to conduct lorry driver tests via a law change to allow driving examiners at the three emergency services and the MoD to be able to conduct driving tests for one another.
The government said it had already streamlined the process for new HGV drivers while increasing the number of driving tests available to allow for an extra 50,000 tests to take place per year.
Mr Shapps also refused to rule out bringing in the Army to drive fuel tankers, saying the government "will do whatever is required".
Officials said the government was focused on raising pay and improving working conditions and diversity of the workforce, rather than relying on cheap foreign workers to fill vacancies in the long run.
The DfT said it recognised that importing foreign labour “will not be the long term solution” to the problem and that it wanted to see investment poured into establishing a robust domestic workforce.
Mr Shapps told the Mail on Sunday that Brexit was a “relatively minor contributor” to the shortage of truck drivers in the UK, despite the Road Haulage Association estimating that Britain’s divorce from the European Union led to an exodus of 20,000 hauliers.
Pointing to shortages caused by the coronavirus pandemic elsewhere in Europe, the Transport Secretary told the BBC he was confident his offer of 5,000 visas would ease the “100 to 200” shortfall of fuel tanker drivers, as he predicted the pump queues would start to “resolve” themselves partly due to the difficulty in stockpiling petrol.
But the boss of the European Road Haulers Association, which represents more than two-thirds of trucking companies across the EU, said he did not think the offer would send drivers flocking back to Britain.
General secretary Marco Digioia, who called Brexit the “number one” reason for UK sector vacancies, told the i newspaper: “Until the UK offers the same pay and working conditions as drivers have in the EU then many will stay away.”