Thousands of lorry drivers and poultry workers taking temporary UK visas 'helped save Christmas'

The government initially suggested there wasn't enough demand for the temporary visas, but applications have 'clearly soared', ITV News Business Editor Joel Hill explains

Half of the temporary visas set aside for foreign workers to help process poultry in the run-up to Christmas have been allocated, less than two weeks after the scheme went live.

The UK government relaxed immigration rules and made 5,500 visas available, following months of complaints from companies that they are struggling to recruit the people they need domestically.

An additional 5,000 temporary visas were made available for HGV drivers in the food and fuel sectors.

ITV News understands there has been a surge in applications and just under half of these have also now been taken up.

The visas are being processed by the same four companies - Concordia, Pro-force, AG Recruitment, Fruitful Jobs - that operate the government’s Seasonal Workers Programme, which sources foreign labour for British farms.

Companies have been urging the government to make it easier for them to temporarily recruit from abroad ever since lockdown restrictions began lifting at the end of April and it became clear than there are severe labour shortages.

Initially, the government refused. Ministers argued that if companies increased pay and improved working conditions, their recruitment problems would disappear.

When news of a shortage of fuel tanker drivers triggered panic-buying at petrol stations in September, the government changed its mind.

Thousands of lorry drivers and poultry workers have taken up temporary visas to work in the UK

Paul Kelly, who runs the KellyBronze turkey farm, says the visa scheme has “helped save Christmas”.

“It’s a massive weight off our shoulders,” he told ITV News.

“We have been allocated twenty-five guys from Poland, all of them are friends or relatives of people who already work for us. I know bigger producers who have got 400 and even 900 workers from the scheme.”

He added: “It’s only a shame the government didn’t tell us they were going to do this in the summer. We’d have grown more British turkeys.”

Farms and poultry processors have until November 15 to apply for the remaining visas, which expire on December 31.

Tony Goodger, of the Association of Independent Meat Suppliers, says he doesn’t think all 5,500 will be used but points out there are worker shortages elsewhere.

“We would urge the government to reallocate 1,000 of those poultry visas to beef and lamb abattoirs, in order to prevent livestock backing up on their farms in the way we have seen in the pig sector,” he told ITV News.

“And we need that reallocation to happen immediately. If they release the visas now, we could bring people over sooner, giving processors six weeks access to butchers in the run-up Christmas”.

Haulage firms insist there is still a chronic shortage of lorry drivers.

“We understand from DEFRA (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) that the number of applications for temporary visas is still low relative to the number of vacancies which currently exist across the industry,” says Elizabeth de Jong, Policy Director at Logistics UK.

“(We have) asked repeatedly for visas for six months, to make the offer an appealing one for EU workers and give sufficient time for logistics companies to recruit, train and arrange tests for UK staff.

"Our concern is that three months is an insufficient duration to entice someone to disrupt their life and travel to another country.”

Earlier this week, the Road Haulage Association told MPs the government’s three-month visa scheme was flawed.

“If you were designing a visa scheme to fail, you would design it something like this,” Duncan Buchanan, director of policy at the Road Haulage Association, told the business energy and industrial strategy select committee on Tuesday.

On Friday, Mr Buchanan told ITV News: “Our smaller members - those with 15 lorries or fewer - appear to be showing no interest in the visa scheme as it is currently configured. It’s too short term, it’s not economical for them.”

A Home Office source told ITV News: “It’s pleasing to see that the time-limited scheme we set up is working the way it was intended.”

A government spokesperson said: “We are offering time-limited visas to 5,000 HGV drivers & 5,500 poultry workers in the run-up to Christmas 2021 to ease supply chain pressures during exceptional circumstances this year. “As we move forward, we want to see employers make long term investments in the UK domestic workforce and automation – this will work alongside the newly extended and expanded Seasonal Workers Pilot to support the overall aim of reducing the sector’s dependency on seasonal migrant labour.”

But the Liberal Democrats spokesperson for Business, Sarah Olney MP, said that instead of celebrating, the government "should be feeling pretty embarrassed tonight."

"The gall of this government is unbelievable," she said.

"They have no right to celebrate the uptake of these visas after telling us for months overseas workers won't help.

"Drivers, butchers and shop owners have been proved right all along," she added.