Boris Johnson has ordered a rapid fix to the UK’s acute shortage of lorry drivers, which has unleashed widespread supply chain disruption, including at petrol stations.
Ministers and officials were due to meet on Friday to examine a package of measures to address the crisis, including the option of issuing temporary visas to foreign lorry drivers.
According to officials, one option includes an expansion to the UK seasonal agricultural workers scheme, which would open it up for “a few thousand HGV drivers and few thousand food processing workers”, with a particular focus on the poultry industry.
One person close to the situation said the prime minister had issued instructions to fix the problem. “Boris wants this solved,” he added. Meanwhile, an ally of Johnson said: “Boris is completely fed up with bad headlines on this and wants it sorted and doesn’t care about visa limits any more.”
Home secretary Priti Patel was previously the strongest opponent of giving temporary visas to foreign HGV drivers, arguing it would lead to a stampede of different industries demanding similar preferential treatment.
But with fears of panic buying at petrol stations, Patel has dropped her resistance and now agrees with transport secretary Grant Shapps that the proposal is worth pursuing, government insiders said.
Other potential solutions ministers will consider include a reduction in red tape for HGV drivers and a programme to encourage those back to the industry who have left.
Whitehall insiders said that any package was likely to be a set of temporary measures “lasting out six months, to see us through Christmas”. But an official cautioned that Downing Street may not sign off on the package.
Energy company BP announced on Thursday that a “handful” of petrol stations would temporarily shut due to a shortage of drivers able to transport unleaded and diesel grades of fuel. Meanwhile, ExxonMobil also warned that a “small number” of its petrol forecourts had been affected.
Gordon Balmer, executive director of the Petrol Retailers Association, said that only a very small number of its members had reported disruption to fuel supplies due to tanker driver shortages but that some fuel stations had experienced increased customer demand on Friday.
“We have seen some queueing starting in the south-east of England and there does appear in some sites that there is an element of panic buying going on.”
Shell, which has not reported any disruption to its fuel supplies, said: “We are seeing an increased demand today for fuel at some of our stations, which may in some instances result in larger queues. We are adapting our delivery schedules to ensure sufficient supplies for our customers.”
Shapps told LBC Radio earlier on Friday that the armed forces could be brought in to drive lorries if the situation worsened.
Lorry drivers currently do not meet the skills threshold to qualify for work visas in the UK under the government’s new points-based system and in recent months the government has resisted calls to offer temporary visas to foreign drivers in a bid to help fill the estimated 100,000 vacancies.
Concerns remain over whether many European drivers will come to Britain when there are already shortages in continental Europe.
Johnson’s move comes as Tory MPs are increasingly worried about the political impact of the fuel shortages and the rising cost of living just as a temporary uplift in the universal credit benefit payment is set to end.
The CBI business lobby on Friday said that its members had this week warned over “sharply increasing” material costs and shortages of key manufacturing components. Producers also faced “rocketing energy prices”, it added.
The CBI has just completed a 10-day consultation with 800 member companies that found that there had been a significant shift from a “growth and investment mindset” to a crisis management mode across all sectors and sizes of company.
It said there was a set of emerging solutions that businesses would like to adopt “but which government policy prevents”. It urged the government to centralise efforts to tackle urgent issues and bring business around the table.
Tony Danker, CBI director-general, said that “after speaking with hundreds of business leaders this week it’s clear there’s a total mindset shift from growing to coping”.
He added: “This is now a major threat to our recovery, and the government needs to step up its response to a new level of both speed and boldness.”
Shapps told the Today programme on Friday there had been a “systematic shortage of drivers” for a “long time”, noting that many drivers had left the sector because of low wages caused in part by importing labour from abroad.
A combination of higher wages, increased licence testing of HGV drivers and better working conditions would solve the issue in the medium term and help to entice qualified drivers back into the profession and attract new recruits, Shapps argued.
About 20,000 EU drivers returned home during the pandemic, according to industry estimates, but a further 50,000 British drivers with HGV licences also stopped working during the past 18 months.
Shapps pushed back on suggestions that Brexit had exacerbated the issue, arguing that the UK’s decision to leave the EU had “helped to provide some of the solutions”. For example, he noted that the UK would not have been able to double its testing capacity within the EU.
The government’s agricultural seasonal workers programme currently allows 30,000 foreigners to come to the UK to help with the harvest.
Farming and food groups have been lobbying for an expansion of the scheme, warning that they are already scaling back planting plans for 2022, and without more workers UK food output will fall and prices rise.
The National Farmers Union is pushing for what it calls a Covid-19 recovery visa, which would be open to a broader category of workers across the supply chain, including areas such as meat processing, which is not included in the seasonal workers’ scheme.
A senior industry insider said talks with the agriculture department, Defra, were continuing on Friday, but that ministers appeared “increasingly sympathetic” to some form of expanded provision for food workers.
George Eustice, agriculture secretary, said in Northern Ireland on Thursday that he was looking to “change the focus” of the scheme, acknowledging there was an “acute” labour shortage in some UK sectors.
Jasmine Cameron-Chileshe, Jim Pickard, Sebastian Payne, Tom Wilson and Daniel Thomas in London and Peter Foster in Brighton
This article has been amended after an earlier version incorrectly stated that Boris Johnson had given the go-ahead to ministers to relax UK immigration rules to allow more foreign truck drivers into the country.