Emergency visas for foreign lorry drivers to tackle the fuel crisis will run out at Christmas, it has emerged, as businesses dismissed the move as no more than “throwing a thimble of water on a bonfire.”
As expected, 5,000 HGV drivers – together with 5,500 poultry workers – will be offered the right to work in the UK, a move repeatedly rejected by ministers despite warnings of a supply chain crunch.
But the visas will last only until Christmas Eve, triggering immediate criticism that the move will fail to halt the scenes of long queues at filling stations and fears of festive shortages.
The British Chambers of Commerce said the fix was “insufficient” and too short-term, while the British Retail Consortium said supermarkets alone needed 15,000 extra drivers for the Christmas season and that 5,000 visas would “do little to alleviate the current shortfall”.
“Christmas is about more than just food, so to avoid disappointment for millions of households during the festive season we urge the government to extend this programme,” said Andrew Opie, its director of food.
The visa scheme, unveiled as some filling stations were forced to close after running out of fuel, is part of a package that will also:
• Spend £10m on new “skills bootcamps” to train up to 3,000 more HGV drivers.
• Train a further 1,000 drivers through adult education-funded courses.
• Use Ministry of Defence driving examiners to provide thousands of extra HGV tests over the next 12 weeks.
• Send letters to retired HGV drivers to encourage them to return to the industry.
Grant Shapps, the transport secretary, said the measures would address what he called “this global crisis”, adding: “This government continues to do everything we can to help the haulage and food industries contend with the HGV driver shortage.
“After a very difficult 18 months, I know how important this Christmas is for all of us and that’s why we’re taking these steps at the earliest opportunity to ensure preparations remain on track.”
Ministers have been forced to act despite repeatedly insisting the exodus of EU drivers created an opportunity for wage rises that would allow homegrown workers to plug the gap.
The Confederation of British Industry has expressed “huge relief” at the U-turn, but criticised the government for delaying it for so long.
“We’ve been calling for it for three months. We could see this problem coming and more problems coming, and so it’s a shame the government needed queues at the pumps to move,” said director-general Tony Danker.
Meanwhile, BP estimated that between 10 and 15 per cent of its 1,200-odd filling stations across the UK had run out of one or more grades of fuel, with a small number closed altogether.
“The supply of EU labour was turned off with no clear roadmap as to how this transition would be managed without disruption to services and supply chains,” said Baroness Ruby McGregor-Smith, president of the BCC. “Now some action has been taken, but additional testing will take time and the low number of visas offered is insufficient.
“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. This announcement is the equivalent of throwing a thimble of water on a bonfire.”
She added: “Without further action, we now face the very real prospect of serious damage to our economic recovery, stifled growth as well as another less than happy Christmas for many businesses and their customers across the country.”