The UK government has outlined plans for a temporary UK visa scheme that will allow foreign truck drivers into Britain. The move comes amid a chronic driver shortage, which has sparked fuel and food shortages in the UK. Across Britain, people are panic buying petrol, with Downing Street said to be furious at what it described as ‘press scaremongering’.
It’s understood that any changes to UK immigration rules would be for a limited time only and there would be a cap on the number of foreign drivers granted entry. More than 10,000 temporary UK visas are set to be issued under the plans.
Driver shortages have sparked widespread disruption to fuel and food deliveries across Britain, with scenes reminiscent of the early weeks of the coronavirus pandemic as people panic buy. Some fuel stations have been forced to close due to shortages, while elsewhere, queues stretching miles long have formed at petrol stations up and down the country.
Shortage of 100,000 drivers
According to the Road Haulage Association, there is a shortage of approximately 100,000 HGV drivers. The industry body claims that Brexit has made existing shortages even worse.
Meanwhile, the UK government and industry leaders have sought to reassure the public that there are no fuel shortages and are urging people not to panic buy. The government has also said that there are ‘no plans to use military personnel’ as drivers in the short term, contrary to recent news reports.
However, the shortage of hauliers does remain a threat to the delivery of petrol, food and other supplies, forcing the government to make a U-turn and give into demands for UK visa restrictions to be eased for foreign truckers.
A report published by the BBC claims that the government is planning to announce a series of longer-term measures in the near future – including the training of more drivers and tackling a backlog in HGV driver testing.
Amid ongoing driver shortages, several supermarket chains have reported a ‘high demand’ for fuel, which has forced a small number of filling stations to close.
BP has been most affected, closing 20 of its 1,200 petrol forecourts, while 50 to 100 of its sites have run out of at least one grade of fuel.
Meanwhile, Tesco has reported that a ‘small number’ of its filling stations have been affected. The EG Group, which operates 341 petrol stations across the UK, said that it is introducing a £30 spending limit on all fuel types to avoid running out amid ‘unprecedented customer demand’.
A petrol station in Stockport reported that it had sold 5,280 gallons (24,000 litres) of fuel on 24 September, compared to just 1,760 gallons (8,000 litres) a week earlier.
The AA said that current queues at petrol stations are unlikely to last because the supply chain is not hit by ongoing problems.
President of the AA, Edmund King, told BBC Breakfast: “The good news is you can only really fill up once – you’ve got to use the fuel, so this should be a short-term thing.”
Government faces backlash
The move to introduce temporary UK visas has sparked a huge backlash against the government, mainly because the introduction of the post-Brexit UK immigration system effectively said to British companies, ‘you can no longer rely on cheap foreign labour, you’ve got to focus on developing the workforce in this country, you’ve got to train them and pay them better wages.’
Relaxing UK immigration rules for foreign drivers is seen by many as undermining the message, while others have said it will lead to other sectors facing staff shortages demanding special treatment too.
Government ministers acknowledge that the situation could get complicated very quickly, but they’ve had to act to avoid further political embarrassment.
Labour has already taken a dig at the government, saying ‘we told you this would happen months ago’ and Boris Johnson knows his opponents are all set to say: ‘we told you so’.
Part of the solution
Meanwhile, the Road Haulage Association has said that while temporary UK visas for foreign drivers are a ‘good idea’ they are only ‘part of the solution’.
The industry body said that the appeal of driving between the EU and the UK is not as appealing as driving on the continent, meaning that even with a temporary UK visa on offer, many would choose to remain in the EU.
However, Allan Davison, managing director of Hoyer Petrolog UK – BP’s transport contractor - told the BBC that temporary visas were needed.
He said: “If this was a permanent request, I would understand the political and practical challenges with that, but it’s not, it’s a temporary request.”
A spokesperson for the government said: “We have ample fuel stocks in this country and the public should be reassured there are no shortages.”
“The government is looking at temporary, time-limited measures to introduce. 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 spokesperson added.
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