UK to issue short-term visas to help ease trucker, food industry shortages

The United Kingdom will grant temporary visas in an effort to tackle supply chain woes, the government said late Saturday. 

“5,000 HGV drivers will be able to come to the UK for 3 months in the run-up to Christmas, providing short-term relief for the haulage industry,” it said in a statement.

“A further 5,500 visas for poultry workers will also be made available for the same short period, to avoid any potential further pressures on the food industry during this exceptional period,” it added.

Britain has been facing an acute shortage of HGV drivers in recent months, with industry blaming a combination of Brexit’s restrictions on labor mobility and a backlog of driver tests as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. Some business groups have already raised concerns that the latest measures are insufficient. 

“Now some action has been taken, but additional testing will take time and the low number of visas offered is insufficient,” Ruby McGregor-Smith, president of the British Chambers of Commerce, said in a statement

“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,” she said, adding: “This announcement is the equivalent of throwing a thimble of water on a bonfire.” 

McGregor-Smith warned that, without further action, Britain faces “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.”

Ian Wright, chief executive of the Food and Drink Federation, welcomed the government’s visa decision while also warning that more action will be needed in the long run. 

“This is a start but we need the government to continue to collaborate with industry and seek additional long term solutions,” he said.

The British authorities will also invest in courses with the aim of training up to 4,000 new drivers, while the Ministry of Defence will deploy staff to help boost testing capacity for drivers. Letters will be sent to individuals already holding licenses to drive lorries, encouraging those who left the industry to return.

Keir Starmer, leader of the opposition Labour Party, accused ministers of “a complete lack of planning” for labor shortages in the wake of the 2016 Brexit vote.

“We took the decision to leave the EU in 2016, so we’ve had five years for the government to work through the consequences,” he told the BBC’s Andrew Marr show. “And here we are on a Sunday morning with petrol stations closed or massive queues, with supermarkets that have got shelves that are empty — a total lack of planning and a prime minister who cannot take any decisions.”

Speaking on the same show, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps argued Brexit allows ministers “the flexibility to set our own rules” and issue visas where needed to tackle shortages.

“On the other side of Brexit, it’s actually given me a lot of freedom to get on with expanding the number of [driving] tests available, which is the real constriction here,” he argued.

“Those are changes that I couldn’t have made if we were still in Europe, because of the way that the licenses operated were all set by European directives — so we’ve benefited from some of those extra freedoms,” Shapps said.

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