Ministers may be poised to U-turn and relax post-Brexit immigration rules to ease a shortage of lorry drivers, newspapers are reporting.
It comes as panic-buying causes massive queues outside forecourts following the closure of a small number of BP and Tesco petrol stations.
Petrol stations have struggled to bring in supplies of fuel in recent days because of the lorry driver shortage, which has been put down to several causes, but principally Brexit and Covid.
Journalists at the Financial Times and the i have reported that a cross-government meeting taking place today (24 September) will sign off on introducing “temporary” visas for HGV drivers as part of efforts to head off the crisis, with Prime Minister Boris Johnson said to have been won over to the proposal.
Earlier today it emerged that the government was weighing up options for fixing labour shortages in the food sector, including possible changes to visa arrangements for seasonal workers.
Drivers with options to work elsewhere in Europe are not going to choose to work in a country where they have to go through the hassle and cost of applying for a visa” – Joanna Hunt, Fieldfisher
Environment secretary George Eustice has suggested that changes to the Seasonal Agricultural Workers’ Scheme – a quota-based scheme that allows farmers to recruit from overseas – were being considered, amid concerns about possible food shortages and panic-buying this Christmas.
A similar move for HGV drivers would be significant U-turn for a government that is urging sectors to rely more on homegrown labour, with home secretary Priti Patel thought to be particular resistant to any relaxation of immigration rules.
The haulage industry estimates there is a shortage of around 100,000 lorry drivers and has been urging ministers to set up a temporary visa for weeks.
It is thought that environment secretary George Eustice is backed by the Cabinet Office minister Steve Barclay in calling for more HGV drivers to be allowed to work in the UK from overseas.
The Cabinet is apparently split on the issue but it appears that a shift in the immigration rules can provide the only short-term solution to the problem.
Joanna Hunt, immigration lawyer at law firm Fieldfisher said the problem was of the government’s own making. “The news that the government now looking to introduce a visa route for foreign truck drivers comes as little surprise. In an effort to be seen to be doing something, the government’s repeated response to labour shortages post Brexit has been to create a new visa route for the specific sector that is in the news that day.
“While creating positive headlines, this tactic fails to address the reason why we are experiencing the labour shortage in the first place. The end of the free movement of workers has left the UK at a disadvantage to our European neighbours when it comes to attracting labour.
“Drivers with options to work elsewhere in Europe are not going to choose to work in a country where they have to go through the hassle and cost of applying for a visa. Free movement of workers was designed to avoid the bureaucratic burden of a work based visa system. By ending free movement and re-introducing curbs on the flow of labour from Europe, the government sowed the seeds for the shortages we are now experiencing.”
Although, many EU countries are also experiencing problems with a lack of HGV drivers, the extensive use of “cabotage” within the EU alleviates the shortage. Cabotage is the loading, transport, and delivery of goods in a country that is in the EU, but carried out by a vehicle that is registered in another EU country.
Brexit, however, has seen the application of more limited cabotage rights to EU drivers bringing loads to the UK and to UK drivers operating on mainland Europe. This has contributed to supply problems in the UK more than in Europe, where, say a Poland-based driver can still make several deliveries within Spain, after dropping off his initial load.
Goods supply expert Michael Glover told the Transport Intelligence website earlier this month that only a small decline in cabotage would affect UK supply in addition to making the UK less attractive for HGV drivers from Europe. He said: “If we look at the figures, around 4-5% of total volume is being moved by cabotage. So that’s part of it, that makes a big difference to the capacity of the market. Also, I think we found that between 15,000 and 25,000 drivers or so have left the UK as EU nationals have returned to their home market. That extra capacity has gone out of the market in the UK as well. So there’s that disruption which has really hurt the UK situation too. Obviously, that’s not something which is a problem in the EU itself now.”