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Friday, May 20, 2022

Fuel Crisis: Temporary visas for foreign drivers extended in U-turn

The prime minister said the possibility of more visas for foreign drivers will be kept ‘under review’ (Picture: PA/Reuters)

Boris Johnson has refused to rule out relaxing immigration rules to help ease the UK’s supply crisis.

The prime minister said the possibility of more visas would be kept ‘under review’ after a scheme for 5,000 drivers to come over was extended.

In a dramatic U-turn, the government said the visas will run until the end of February instead of expiring on December 24 as originally planned.

The short duration of the initial offer drew widespread criticism, with European truckers saying they won’t leave stable jobs abroad to ‘pee in a bottle on the M25’.

Under the plan, 300 fuel drivers will be able to come to the UK from overseas ‘immediately’ and stay until March. Some 4,700 other visas intended for foreign food truck drivers will last from late October to the end of February.

The move is a major change in policy after ministers previously insisted they would not relax immigration rules in response to the crisis.

An estimated shortage of around 100,000 drivers has sown chaos throughout British supply chains, in everything from food to fuel.

Boris spoke about the driver shortage while on a visit to Leeds Hospital (Picture: Getty)

There have been lengthy queues at forecourts across the country for over a week due to a lack of drivers to deliver petrol, and industry bosses have warned the problem is getting worse in some areas.

In recent months, the driver shortage has seen Nando’s run dry of chicken while McDonald’s ran out of milkshakes. Supermarket shelves have also looked barren, and fears have grown that they will not be stocked as usual in the run-up to Christmas.

Asked on Saturday whether he would rule out further relaxations to immigration rules, Mr Johnson said the possibility of more visas would be kept ‘under review’.

‘What we have now is a system that allows us to control immigration,’ he said.

‘That gives us flexibility – we can open up our markets if we need to. And, of course, we’ll keep everything under review.’

But the prime minister insisted he does not want to see a return to ‘a lot of low-wage immigration’, stressing that visas will not be the long-term solution.

He said: ‘What we don’t want to do is go back to a situation in which we basically allowed the road haulage industry to be sustained with a lot of low wage immigration.

‘That meant that wages didn’t go up and facilities, standards and the quality of the job didn’t go up.

‘So the weird thing is now that people don’t want to go into the road haulage industry, don’t want to be lorry drivers, precisely because we’ve had that massive immigration approach and held wages down and held the quality of the job down.

‘So we want to see an improvement, we want to see investments in facilities.

‘And what you’re now starting to see is, for the first time in over a decade, you’re seeing wages going up around the country, and that is fundamentally a good thing.

‘That’s what we need. Wages are going up faster for those on the lower incomes and that is what we mean by levelling up.’

The military has been drafted in to help with a fuel crisis sparked by a HGV fuel driver shortage (Picture: Getty)
The fuel shortage has sparked a panic buying frenzy (Picture: Reuters)

Tens of thousands of drivers left the UK after Brexit to go back to their homes in the EU, pressuring an industry already facing long-term staffing issues due to poor pay and conditions.

The pandemic has exacerbated the problem, prompting thousands of foreign workers to return to their home countries to be closer to family.

Lockdowns also led to difficulties in training and testing new domestic drivers to replace those who left.

In addition, the rate of drivers retiring early has shot up since the pandemic.

But relatively low pay, changes in the way truck drivers’ incomes are taxed and a paucity of facilities such as toilets and showers mean that less people are applying for the job.

It’s not just a driver shortage causing disruption. Last month, the number of job vacancies in the UK shot up to two million, with several industries impacted by a staff shortage blamed on a perfect storm of Brexit and Covid.

In an attempt to stave off a shortage of Christmas turkeys, the government also announced that a total of 5,500 foreign poultry workers will be allowed into the UK from late October and to stay until the end of the year.

But one union leader has warned that foreign workers won’t be rushing to ‘help the UK out of the sh*it it created’.

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The government has said it wants to see employers make investments in the UK domestic workforce instead of relying on overseas labour.

But ministers are coming under mounting pressure from business leaders and MPs to relax immigration rules in order to avoid severe shortages of workers and goods in the run up to Christmas. 

The visa plan comes after more than a week of chaos at petrol stations, with pumps across the country running dry due to a lack of fuel deliveries.

Huge queues have piled up at petrol stations, prices have shot up and fights have broken out amid a panic buying frenzy.

In another move intended to ease the pressure, the army is being deployed to deliver fuel to garages from Monday.

Despite ministers publicly insisting the situation is stabilising, government insiders are privately branding it an ‘effing nightmare’ – a reference to problems shortages have caused with energy, fuel and food.

Even if the fuel shortage is resolved with the help of the army, ministers expect problems in other areas to continue in the months ahead. 

A massive increase in the wholesale cost of gas has prompted a handful of energy firms to collapse, with consumers facing skyrocketing bills this winter.

Opposition parties are urging Prime Minister Boris Johnson to recall parliament next week to address the wider situation of labor shortages and disruptions to supply chains.

Part of the government’s reserve tanker fleet to deal with the fuel crisis (Picture: PA)

The government has been accused of ‘gas-lighting’ the nation over the scale of the crisis.

Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng said last night that fuel demand is stabilising.

However, the Petrol Retailers Association, which represents independent filling stations, warned that fuel supplies remain a problem and could be getting worse in places.

‘In London and the southeast, and possibly parts of eastern England, if anything, it had got worse,’ the group’s chairman, Brian Madderson, told BBC radio.

Madderson welcomed the deployment of military drivers next week but warned it would have a limited impact.

‘This isn’t going to be the major panacea,’ he said.

‘It’s a large help, but in terms of the volume, they are not going to be able to carry that much.’

Get in touch with our news team by emailing us at webnews@metro.co.uk.

For more stories like this, check our news page.

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