Britain will issue up to 10,500 temporary work visas to lorry drivers and poultry workers to ease chronic staff shortages, the government announced Saturday, in a U-turn on post-Brexit immigration policy.
The short-term visas, to run from next month until late December, come as ministers grapple with a huge shortfall in drivers and some other key workers that has hit fuel supplies and additional industries.
The Department for Transport said that it will issue three-month visas to 5,000 lorry drivers to provide “short-term relief for the haulage industry” and another 5,500 to poultry workers “to avoid any potential further pressures on the food industry during this exceptional period.”
It also aims to train 4,000 people as new heavy goods vehicle (HGV) drivers with the help of examiners from the Ministry of Defence.
Large queues at petrol stations in Britain
A tanker drivers shortage has caused large queues at petrol stations in recent days, as people ignore government pleas not to panic-buy fuel after some garages closed due to the lack of deliveries.
Some petrol stations have had to close in recent days because there are not enough qualified drivers to distribute fuel around the country. There have also been reports of empty supermarket shelves due to supply issues. The industry says it’s short of tens of thousands of lorry drivers.
BP and Esso shut a handful of their stations in Britain this week because there were not enough truckers to get gas to the pumps. EG Group, which operates about 400 UK petrol stations, said it was limiting purchases to £30 ($40).
In a statement, the government said Britain had “ample fuel stocks.”
“But like countries around the world, we are suffering from a temporary COVID-related shortage of drivers needed to move supplies around the country,” it said, not acknowledging Brexit as a factor.
Reversal of post-Brexit policy
The decision to expand the critical worker visa scheme is a reversal by Prime Minister Boris Johnson, whose government had tightened post-Brexit immigration rules insisting that Britain’s reliance on foreign labor must end.
The COVID pandemic, an ageing workforce and an exodus of foreign workers following Brexit have all been cited as reasons.
New immigration rules introduced after Brexit mean EU citizens can no longer live and work visa-free in the UK.
The Road Haulage Association had urged the government in June to ease visa rules to help improve the situation.
According to the BBC, the Road Haulage Association estimates there is now a shortage of more than 100,000 drivers in the UK, out of a pre-pandemic total of about 600,000. That number included tens of thousands of drivers from EU member states who were living and working in the UK.
Britain’s farming and food processing industries, which are short of fruit-pickers and meat-packers, have made similar requests.
Last month, McDonald’s locations in England, Wales and Scotland were temporarily no longer serving milkshakes and bottled drinks due to supply chain and logistic issues that were largely caused by Brexit.
Brexit is one of the main reasons for the shortage in HGV drivers. The latest Brexit deal led 25,000 EU truck drivers to return to their home countries, according to the Financial Times.