Britain will issue up to 10,500 temporary work visas for truck drivers and poultry workers to alleviate chronic staff shortages, the government announced on Saturday, in a U-turn in post-Brexit immigration policy.
The short-term visas, which will run from next month through the end of December, come as ministers grapple with a huge shortage of drivers and some other key workers that has affected fuel supplies and additional industries.
The shortage of tanker truck drivers has led to long lines at gas stations in recent days as people ignore the government’s pleas not to panic and buy fuel after some garages closed due to lack of deliveries. .
The decision to expand the critical worker visa scheme is a reversal by Prime Minister Boris Johnson, whose government had tightened post-Brexit immigration rules by insisting that Britain’s dependence on foreign labor must end.
It had resisted the measure for months, despite an estimated shortage of around 100,000 heavy vehicle (HGV) drivers and warnings from various quarters that supplies would run out.
However, Transportation Secretary Grant Shapps insisted he was taking action “at the earliest opportunity” and that a broader package of measures announced would ensure that pre-Christmas preparations “stay on track.”
“Industries must also do their part so that working conditions continue to improve and the well-deserved wage increases continue to be maintained so that companies retain new drivers,” he added.
But a business leader dismissed the new measures as inappropriate.
Millions of pounds for ‘skills bootcamps’
“This ad is the equivalent of throwing a thimble of water on a bonfire,” said Ruby McGregor-Smith, president of the British Chambers of Commerce.
The additional tests would be slow to impact while the new visa numbers were “insufficient” and not “sufficient to address the magnitude of the problem,” he added.
The new measures will focus on rapidly expanding the number of new national drivers and will include the deployment of Ministry of Defense driving examiners to help provide thousands of additional tests over the next 12 weeks.
Meanwhile, the Ministry of Education and partner agencies will spend millions of pounds training 4,000 people to become heavy-duty vehicle drivers, creating new so-called “skills bootcamps” to speed up the process.
Nearly 1 million letters will also be sent to all drivers who currently have an HGV license, asking all who are not currently driving to return to work.
Johnson has come under increasing pressure to act, after the pandemic and Brexit combined to worsen the carrier shortage and other crises emerged, including escalating energy prices.
In addition to threatening the timely supply of fuel, the lack of truck drivers has affected British factories, restaurants and supermarkets in recent weeks and months.
American hamburger chain McDonald’s ran out of smoothies and bottled beverages last month, fast food giant KFC was forced to remove some items from its menu, while restaurant chain Nando temporarily closed dozens of establishments due to the lack of chicken.
Supermarkets are feeling the heat too, with frozen food group Iceland and retail king Tesco warning of a shortage of Christmas goods.
This week it was the turn of the fuels sector, with ever-growing lines of cars blocking access to service stations after some closures and panic buying, particularly in the south-east of England.
Drivers appeared less than calm on Saturday as queues again formed to refuel.
Mike Davey, 56, had been waiting more than half an hour to refuel at a gas station run by the Tesco supermarket chain in Kent, southeast London.
“I just want to get some fuel to go to work. People are like filling cans, it’s ridiculous,” he told AFP.
“Maybe they need to bring in some army drivers,” Davey added.
Until now, the government has resisted requests to deploy soldiers to help deliver gasoline directly.
As part of the announced measures, taxpayers will also help pay for some applications for adult heavy vehicle licenses in the upcoming academic year, which can cost thousands of pounds, through a budget fund for adult education.