In a U-turn on post-Brexit immigration policy, the government announced on Saturday that Britain would issue up to 10,500 temporary work visas to truck drivers and poultry workers to ease the old workforce.
The short-term visas are due to run from next month until the end of December, as ministers try to fix shortages of drivers and other key workers affecting fuel supplies and additional industries.
The shortage of tanker drivers has led to long lines at gas stations in recent days, as people ignore government pleas not to buy fuel after some stations are closed.
The decision to extend the crucial worker visa scheme is overturned by Prime Minister Boris Johnson, whose government tightened post-Brexit immigration rules, insisting that Britain’s reliance on foreign labor must end.
The government had resisted the move for months, despite an estimated shortage of around 100,000 heavy goods vehicle (HGV) drivers and warnings from various sectors that supplies would run out.
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps nonetheless insisted he was taking action “at the earliest opportunity” and that a comprehensive package of measures announced would ensure pre-Christmas preparations “stay on track”.
“Industries must also play their part in improving working conditions and companies must continue to raise qualified wages to retain new drivers,” he added.
‘Skills Boot Camp’
The new measures will focus on rapidly expanding the number of new domestic drivers, and include deploying Defense Ministry driving testers to help provide thousands of additional tests over the next 12 weeks.
Meanwhile the Ministry of Education and allied agencies will spend millions of pounds training 4,000 people to become HGV drivers, creating new “skills boot camps” to speed up the process.
Around 10 lakh letters will also be sent to all drivers holding HGV licences, asking those who are not currently driving to return to work.
Johnson is under increasing pressure to act, after the pandemic and Brexit combined revealed driver shortages and other crises, including rising energy prices.
As well as threatening timely fuel supplies, a shortage of truck drivers has plagued British factories, restaurants and supermarkets in recent weeks and months.
US burger chain McDonald’s went short of milkshakes and bottled drinks last month, forcing fast-food giant KFC to remove some items from its menu, while restaurant chain Nando’s temporarily closed due to chicken shortages. Dozens of outlets were closed.
Supermarkets are also feeling the heat, with frozen food conglomerate Iceland and retail king Tesco warning of Christmas product shortages.
‘This is ridiculous’
This week it was the turn of the fuel sector, especially in south-east England after some closures and panic-buying lines of cars blocked the approach to gas stations.
Drivers appeared less than confident on Saturday, as lines for fuel again formed.
Mike Davey, 56, waited for more than half an hour to fill up at a station run by supermarket chain Tesco in Kent, south-east of London.
“I just want to bring some fuel to go to work. People are like filling jerry cans – it’s ridiculous,” he told AFP.
“Maybe they need to get some army drivers in,” Davey said.
The government has so far resisted calls to deploy troops to help deliver petrol directly.
As part of the announced measures, taxpayers will also help pay for some adult HGV license applications in the next academic year, which could cost thousands of pounds, through an adult education budget fund.