“Like throwing a thimble of water on a bonfire”: business groups denounce visa plans for truck drivers

Plans to offer 5,000 three-month visas for foreign heavy truck drivers are “insufficient” and “equivalent to throwing a dice of water on a bonfire” to solve the supply problems before Xmas, said business groups.

In addition to truck drivers, the government’s temporary visa program will allow 5,500 poultry workers to take jobs in the UK until Christmas Eve, in an effort to keep supermarket shelves full of turkeys and resolve delivery issues at service stations.

The intervention came amid long lines at gas stations after a shortage of tanker drivers forced some retailers to shut down their pumps and ration sales.

The shortage of truck drivers has been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic, although there have been long-term problems in the UK with the number of workers amid an aging workforce, low wages and poor lorry stopping conditions.

Speaking on Sunday, Transportation Secretary Grant Shapps admitted he had done something he “didn’t necessarily want to do” by allowing foreign workers to fill labor shortages, not having only rallied around the idea of ​​temporary visas on Friday, but said the changes would “ensure preparations stay on track” for the holiday season.

Mr Shapps also accused a transport group of triggering queues at gas stations while fleeing comments from BP bosses on supply issues.

People lined up for fuel at dawn, while some pumps in parts of the country have dried up, ITV correspondent Rachel Younger reported on Saturday’s News At Ten.

Retailers warned the government that he had only 10 days to save Christmas from a “major disruption” due to a shortage of around 90,000 freight drivers.

Industry groups Food and Drink Federation and Logistics UK have both welcomed the visa changes, with federation chief Ian Wright calling the measures “pragmatic”.

While industry groups such as the British Retail Consortium (BRC) and the British Chamber of Commerce (BCC) have criticized the scope of the package, others saw it as a step back from the Prime Minister’s ambitions to create a -qualified post-Brexit economy.

BCC President Baroness McGregor-Smith said the changes were “the equivalent of throwing a dice of water on a bonfire” because that “would not be enough to solve the scale of the problem.”

“Even if these short-term opportunities attract the maximum number of people allowed under the program, it will not be enough to solve the scale of the problem that has now developed in our supply chains,” she said. declared.

The conservative peer added that consumers and businesses were facing “another less than happy Christmas” because of the “insufficient” visa supply.

Will temporary visas for foreign heavy truck drivers solve the problem? – Rebecca Barry, ITV News correspondent

Andrew Opie, director of the BRC, said the limit of 5,000 HGV visas would do “little to make up for the current shortfall” and called for the extension of visas to “all sectors of the trade. detail”.

He added: “Supermarkets alone have estimated that they need at least 15,000 truck drivers to keep their businesses running at full capacity before Christmas and avoid disruption or uptime issues.”

The easing of immigration rules has been welcomed by other industry groups, however, with Food and Drink Federation chief Ian Wright calling the measures “pragmatic”, while Logistics UK has said it showed that the government had listened to the concerns of the carriers.

Richard Walker, managing director of the Iceland supermarket, called the announcement “critical” and insisted that store staff and other key workers be rushed past the lines at the gas station.

The supermarket boss said: “Until this subsides, key workers, including food retail workers, need to be given priority at pumps so that we can keep hospitals running and the food stores open, and the nation safe and nourished. “

Two caregivers told ITV News correspondent Rachel Younger that they were stuck in a line at a gas station for 40 minutes in the middle of their shift.

In addition to the visa changes, the Department for Transport (DfT) said it plans to train an additional 4,000 truck drivers through a £ 10million investment in skills camps and budgets set for the adult education, with some of those studying for heavy truck licenses being eligible to have their courses paid for by the state.

The Defense Department is also stepping in to provide examiners for truck driving tests as ministers seek to steadily increase the size of the workforce.

Officials said the loan of Defense Department examiners to work alongside Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency (DVSA) employees would help organize “thousands more tests” over the next 12 weeks.

Meanwhile, nearly a million letters will land in the coming days on the doormats of heavy truck license holders to encourage those who have left the industry to return.

The letter will set out measures taken by the road transport sector to improve conditions in the industry, including increasing wages, flexible working and fixed hours, according to the transport ministry.

Credit: Stefan Rousseau / AP

A thousand more people are expected to be trained through locally accessible courses funded from the government’s adult education budget.

Those who access medical and heavy truck licenses through the adult budget in the 2021/22 academic year will have their qualifications paid for by the state, with funding being backdated for anyone who started one of those qualifications on the 1st. August or after that date.

More DVSA examiners will also be free to conduct truck driving tests through a change in the law to allow driving examiners from the three emergency services and the Ministry of Defense to be able to perform road tests. driving for each other.

Shortages of truck drivers are the root of the disruption of fuel and good deliveries. Credit: Pennsylvania

The government said it had already streamlined the process for new heavy truck drivers while increasing the number of available drive tests to allow an additional 50,000 tests to take place per year.

Mr Shapps also refused to rule out the possibility of using the military to drive tankers, saying the government “will do whatever is necessary”.

Officials said the government was focusing on increasing wages and improving working conditions and workforce diversity, rather than relying on cheap foreign workers to fill vacancies. long-term.

The DfT said it recognizes that importing foreign labor “will not be the long-term solution” to the problem and that it wants investment to be made in building a workforce. strong national work.

Mr Shapps told the Mail on Sunday that Brexit was a “relatively minor contributor” to the UK’s truck driver shortage, although the Road Haulage Association has ruled that Britain’s divorce from the Union European Union had led to an exodus of 20,000 carriers.

Highlighting the shortages caused by the coronavirus pandemic elsewhere in Europe, the transport secretary told the BBC he was convinced his offer of 5,000 visas would reduce the shortage of “100 to 200” tanker drivers, as he predicted that the queues at the pump would begin to “resolve” on their own in part because of the difficulty of storing gasoline.

But the boss of the European Road Haulers Association, which represents more than two-thirds of trucking companies across the EU, said he didn’t think the offer would send drivers back to Britain.

Secretary-General Marco Digioia, who called Brexit the “number one” reason for vacancies in the UK sector, told i newspaper: “Until the UK offers the same pay and working conditions than EU drivers, many will stay away. “