The government’s emergency program to issue temporary visas to thousands of truck drivers is too small to solve Britain’s supply chain crisis and unlikely to attract them to the UK, transport chiefs warned.
Downing Street confirmed on Saturday night hastily compiled plans to add 5,000 HGV drivers and 5,500 poultry workers to a visa scheme through Christmas, to help the food and fuel industries with shortages.
However, even when the plans were formally announced, Marco Digioia, director of the European Road Transport Association, which represents more than 200,000 road transport companies across the continent, told the Observer that “it would take much more” than a temporary relaxation of immigration rules. “There is a shortage of drivers across Europe,” he said. “I’m not sure how many would want to go to the UK.”
Andrew Opie of the British Retail Consortium said the 5,000 limit “would do little to alleviate the current deficit.”
Criticisms emerged as the supply chain crisis spread:
Ambulance and care workers have been affected by gasoline queues, following reports that some yards have not received planned gasoline deliveries.
There were warnings that as many as one in five deliveries might not reach major supermarket chains on time or at all.
Polls suggested that a majority of voters, including 52% of Leave voters, believed that Brexit was partly to blame for the crisis.
Digioia said that European drivers’ wages were generally higher than in Britain; new EU rules have improved working conditions; and billions of euros have been offered to finance parking areas and support companies.
“The UK has no access to any of that,” he said. “Tempting European drivers back to the UK when they also have to face the reality of customs and border controls, all the uncertainties of Brexit … We have to be realistic.”
Higher wages, and maybe tax incentives, could help in the short term, he said, but “there’s a lot of money going into this whole problem in Europe right now. There is a level playing field and none of the problems related to Brexit ”.
The government said Saturday night that it plans to train up to 4,000 people as heavy vehicle drivers, with the help of military examiners to speed up the process; and letters are being sent to recently retired drivers in an attempt to convince them to return to work.
Senior industry figures said there would now be a battle between British companies to hire drivers, and companies with less ability to pay would find themselves with few workers. The sources said that large companies were already threatened.
There were also warnings Saturday night that a looming shortage of short-term workers needed to cope with the fall demand from food pickers and packers will intensify the crisis.
Two-thirds (67%) of voters believe the government has mishandled the crisis, according to a new Opinium poll for the Observer. Even a majority of conservative voters (59%) thought the government had responded badly. The majority (68%) said that Brexit was partly to blame, including 88% of voters remain and 52% of voters abandoned.
In addition to the deficit in deliveries to supermarkets, the serious difficulties faced by the hospitality sector are expected to widen.
Ian Wright, executive director of the Food and Beverage Federation, said there could be as many as four million people who were available to businesses early last year but are no longer in the potential workforce. He warned of another tipping point in just a few weeks, when agency staff would be needed to deal with peak fall and Christmas demand.
“I’m absolutely sure that when we get to the end of September and when we start to see the crucial role of agency workers in the Christmas rush, there won’t be enough available,” he said.
“The government needs to come to a pretty quick resolution on truck drivers. The question then is, if you call them, will they come?
“I think the only way to find out is to do it. But then you get into what is a pretty obvious contest about what industry, what company, who can pay more. One in five hospitality orders from suppliers fail. My guess is that several of the supermarkets are in a comparable position, so there is a shortage on the shelves, ”Wright said.
There were also reports of ambulances and hospital staff being hit by gasoline queues, after some gasoline retailers said fuel deliveries were unable to reach some yards. South Central Ambulance Trust said its staff had “joined the queues with others to refuel on Friday, which has sometimes taken time.”
Matt McDonnell, executive director of Medicare EMS, which has a fleet of ambulances, said several crews had trouble getting fuel on Saturday. “This morning, we had a team driving for over an hour,” he said. “They found a garage that had a sign that said ‘access only to emergency vehicles.’ But our crew was rationed to just 30 liters of fuel. “
A crew member on an emergency shift in eastern England posted an angry message on Facebook on Friday. Jennifer Ward wrote: “Imagine having to go to 5 DIFFERENT gas stations to get diesel for your AMBULANCE.” There were also reports that care workers in Kent had been unable to reach people’s homes due to a lack of gasoline. There are dire warnings about the impact that higher prices, rising energy bills, and the incoming cut in universal credit will have on the underpaid. A typical low-income family with children could see their income drop by more than £ 20 a week over the next six months as a result of the “triple whammy,” according to the Resolution Foundation think tank.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism