Plans to offer 5,000 three-month visas for foreign lorry drivers are “insufficient” to address supply issues in the lead up to Christmas, according to business groups.
The Government has announced a temporary visa scheme that will see 5,000 HGV drivers and 5,500 poultry workers allowed to take up employment in the UK until Christmas Eve, in a bid to keep supermarket shelves stocked with turkeys and tackle delivery difficulties at petrol stations.
The intervention came amid scenes of lengthy queues at petrol stations after a shortage of fuel tanker drivers forced some retailers to shut their pumps and ration sales.
But the British Retail Consortium and the British Chamber of Commerce criticised the scope of the package of measures revealed by Transport Secretary Grant Shapps on Saturday, which were seen by some as a step back from the Prime Minister’s ambitions to create a high-wage, high-skilled post-Brexit economy.
Mr Shapps said the changes, with short-term visas available from next month, would “ensure preparations remain on track” for the festive season.
Chamber president Baroness McGregor-Smith, however, said consumers and businesses faced “another less than happy Christmas” due to the visa offer being “insufficient”.
Retailers had previously warned the Government that it had just 10 days to save Christmas from “significant disruption” due to a shortfall of about 90,000 drivers in the freight sector.
The Conservative peer said: “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.
“This announcement is the equivalent of throwing a thimble of water on a bonfire.”
Andrew Opie, a director at the British Retail Consortium, said the limit of 5,000 HGV visas would do “little to alleviate the current shortfall” and called for visas to be extended to “all sectors of the retail industry”.
He added: “Supermarkets alone have estimated they need at least 15,000 HGV drivers for their businesses to be able to operate at full capacity ahead of Christmas and avoid disruption or availability issues.”
The relaxation of immigration rules was welcomed by other industry groups, however, with Food and Drink Federation chief Ian Wright calling the measures “pragmatic”, while Logistics UK said it showed Government had listened to hauliers’ concerns.
Richard Walker, managing director at Iceland supermarket, called the announcement “critical” and pushed for shop staff and other key workers to be fast-tracked past petrol pump queues.
The supermarket boss said: “Until this eases, key workers including food retail workers need to be prioritised at the pumps so that we can keep hospitals operating and food shops open, and the nation safe and fed.”
As well as the visa changes, the Department for Transport (DfT) said it planned to train 4,000 more lorry drivers through both a £10 million investment in skills camps and established adult education budgets, with some of those studying for HGV licences eligible to have their courses paid for by the state.
Meanwhile, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) will be stepping in to provide examiners for lorry driving tests as ministers look to steadily increase the size of the workforce.
Officials said the loan of MoD examiners to work alongside Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency (DVSA) employees would help put on “thousands of extra tests” over the next 12 weeks.
The coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated a global shortage of lorry drivers, although there have been long-term issues in the UK with vacancy numbers amid an ageing workforce, low wages and poor truck stop conditions.
In a drive to encourage people to return to the industry, nearly one million letters will be landing on the doormats of people with HGV licences in the coming days enticing them to give the job another go.
The letter will set out the steps the haulage sector is taking to improve industry conditions, including increased wages, flexible working and fixed hours, according to the DfT.
Officials said the Government was focused on raising pay and improving working conditions and diversity of the workforce, rather than relying on cheap foreign workers to fill vacancies in the long run.
The DfT said it recognised that importing foreign labour “will not be the long term solution” to the problem and that it wanted to see investment poured into establishing a robust domestic workforce.