Short-term UK visa scheme expected to tackle Christmas delivery disruption

The prospect of a temporary visa scheme to fix the lorry driver shortage has been met with frustration and relief by industry figures and opposition politicians.

With an announcement expected over the weekend, Downing Street sources said the scheme, which reports suggest will temporarily lift visa restrictions for foreign drivers, is to be a “short-term solution” to ease pressure on deliveries in the run-up to Christmas.

Up to 5,000 temporary visas could be granted for HGV drivers, it has been reported, while the FT said a similar number would be approved for food processing workers, especially in the poultry industry.

It comes amid scenes of lengthy queues at petrol stations after a shortage of HGV drivers forced some fuel retailers to shut their pumps and ration sales.

The petrol problems follow growing concern over the impact the lack of HGV drivers is having on supermarket supplies, with fears Christmas shopping could be hindered without action.

Experts suggest the industry is short of about 90,000 drivers.

Trade associations including the National Farmers’ Union, the Road Haulage Association, the Food and Drink Federation and the British Meat Processors Association have previously proposed a special one-year visa that would allow workers to enter the UK to fill vacancies for lorry drivers, as well as butchers, chefs and other food industry roles.

About 25,000 HGV drivers from the EU left during 2020 and did not return, while there is also a backlog of 40,000 people waiting to take their HGV tests.

The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) said there was “huge relief” at the prospect of a softening of policy on foreign workers being allowed into the UK to mitigate the issue.

Director general Tony Danker told BBC Breakfast: “Hopefully it is going to happen and it is a huge relief. 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, but move I hope they have and it will help.”

The Labour leader, Keir Starmer, told supporters after arriving at the Labour party conference in Brighton that the Conservative administration was “letting people down so badly” over shortages of food and fuel. He said: “I’ve just been up the road (and seen) three petrol stations, one of them with a massive queue and two of them with no fuel.”

One freight transport boss was sceptical about whether the shortages being experienced in the sector would be resolved by relaxing immigration rules.

Asked on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme whether such a scheme could help alleviate the vacancies, Toby Ovens, managing director of Broughton Transport Solutions, said: “No, I think a lot of what we’re seeing at the minute is down to essentially the driver wages. Margins in haulage are very tight and the reality is the money isn’t there to pay the increased wages without substantial price increases to customers.”

Ovens said he did not believe Brexit had been a factor in the haulage sector’s problems, with the improvement in living standards in eastern European countries – where lorry drivers have tended to hail from in recent years – meaning people are choosing to remain with their families rather than come to the UK for work.


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