Ministers Poised To Relax Immigration Rules As Lorry Driver Crisis Hits Fuel Supplies
The government is preparing to temporarily relax immigration rules for foreign lorry drivers in what is set to be a major U-turn brought about by the growing supply chain crisis.
Ministers including Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster Stephen Barclay and Transport Secretary Grant Shapps on Friday afternoon met to discuss how to respond to ongoing labour shortages, with the government expected to temporarily relax rules for EU workers through a visa scheme in the coming days.
Downing Street tonight confirmed the government was looking at "temporary measures" to avoid further disruption to supply chains, with fuel being the latest victim of the dearth of HGV drivers.
However, any measures introduced would be "very strictly time limited," a spokesperson said.
The Financial Times this afternoon reported that Boris Johnson had given ministers the green light to relax immigration rules for foreign lorry drivers, in what would be a spectacular government U-turn.
A source familiar with the situation is reported to have said the Prime Minister is "completely fed up with bad headlines" about supply chain disruption and "doesn't care about visa limits anymore".
Two government sources this afternoon told PoliticsHome that a final decision had not been made.
The government has up to now been adamant that it will not relax immigration rules in response to the UK's insufficent lorry driver numbers. The long-standing shortage, put down to poor pay, unpleasant working conditions and an aging workforce, has been exacerbated by Brexit and the coronavirus pandemic.
Home Secretary Priti Patel and Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng are believed to have been the senior ministers most opposed to relaxing immigration rules in the run-up to today's urgent talks.
Ministers have urged businesses to recruit more British workers and have put in place measures designed to speed up the rate at which people can take lorry driver tests, in order to make up the shortfall. The Road Haulage Association estimates the country is short of around 100,000 drivers.
However, the government has come under growing pressure to change its mind in recent weeks as the lorry driver shortage has wreacked havoc across a wide range of industries.
It has led to delays in products reaching supermarket shelves and resulted in household names like McDonald's, Greggs, and Ikea running out of certain items. The Food & Drink Federation's Ian Wright last week said one in five orders made by hospitality businesses were simply not arriving.
The crisis took another serious turn on Thursday when some of the UK's largest fuel providers said they had been forced to close a small number of petrol stations due to fuel not reaching them. BP said a "handful" of its petrol stations had been forced to shut because of a lack of access to fuel, while Esso and Tesco also reported problems with supply.
Footage posted on social media on Friday showed long queues of cars at petrol stations, despite people being urged by the government not to panic buy.
The Downing Street spokesperson tonight said: “We have ample fuel stocks in this country and the public should be reassured there are no shortages."
A multitude of trade groups have spent the last few weeks urging ministers to make it easier to hire lorry drivers and other workers from the continent by adding them to the Shortage Occupation List.
14,000 EU drivers are estimated to have left the UK in the year to June 2020, according to recent Logistics UK analysis of Office for National Statistics data, and the government's post-Brexit immigration system has made it much harder for them to come back and rejoin the profession.
Logistics UK estimates just 600 of those drivers have returned to the country.
The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) earlier this month warned that labour shortages could last another two years without urgent action, with the body's director-general Tony Danker warning: "Standing firm and waiting for shortages to solve themselves is not the way to run an economy."
PoliticsHome provides the most comprehensive coverage of UK politics anywhere on the web, offering high quality original reporting and analysis: Subscribe