The UK government has reportedly been holding secret talks over a short-term UK visa for overseas lorry drivers in a bid to tackle overwhelming staff shortages across the haulage industry. It’s understood that officials at the Department for Transport (DfT) are consulting with haulage industry bosses as driver shortages hit more than 100,000.
The shortage of drivers has resulted in widespread delivery delays on things like food and clothing while fuelling a rise in prices. Transport leaders are now urging the temporary easing of UK immigration rules as the only way of quickly tackling driver shortages and delivery delays.
However, it’s understood that the Home Office is strongly opposed to relaxing controls, which were tightened following the completion of the Brexit transition period on 31 December 2020.
Value of temporary visa scheme
DfT officials are instead urging haulage industry bosses to provide compelling evidence to demonstrate the value of a temporary UK visa scheme.
One source close to the secret talks said: “Everyone involved is sworn to secrecy as the Home Office is taking a very hard line. The Home Office has the final decision on this and the DfT knows it has a very tough sell, so need the very best evidence.”
Informal talks over a temporary visa started at the beginning of July, however, discussions could still fail to amount to anything should the Home Office hold firm on its stance.
The source said: “There has been a subtle change of heart from government. They know they need to explore how this can be solved.”
European drivers leave
According to official statistics, approximately 15,000 European drivers have left the UK to return to their home nations because of Brexit. Meanwhile, the coronavirus pandemic has led to further disruption, causing driver shortfalls to worsen.
The continued crisis has forced many supermarkets to destroy food that they are unable to get from depots to stores. However, consumers have not yet been affected by the crisis. Meanwhile, companies have been complaining that they have not been able to move goods from their factories.
The DfT did recently relax rules on how long HGV drivers can work in a bid to ease the problem of driver shortages. It’s understood that basic daily time limits for driving were increased from nine to 10 hours, while two 11-hour stints behind the wheel per week have also been allowed.
However, the measure was blasted by union and transport associations, which called it a ‘sticking plaster’ and a threat to road safety.
The haulage industry’s call for a temporary visa scheme comes after it was scathing of the fallout from Brexit. Truckers had warned for months that Dover would be hit by huge tailbacks, even though disruptions were short-lived.
Transport leaders have argued that temporary visas will need to be a minimum of 12 months long to tackle the driver shortage problem.
Road Haulage Association policy director, Rod McKenzie, said: “Lorry drivers are essential workers and it’s vital the government relaxes immigration rules short term to allow foreign HGV truckers back in the face of this serious shortage.”
Meanwhile, the policy manager for Logistics UK, Alex Veitch, said: “Even before the loss of EU workers, logistics was suffering a chronic driver shortage. The breakdown of driver testing during lockdowns, and the inability to recruit from overseas due to visa rules, means the situation has become a crisis.”
“Logistics was deemed essential during the pandemic. Without a temporary UK visa for drivers the supply chain will break down,” Mr Veitch added.
A spokesperson for the government denied that ‘secret talks’ with any haulage industry leaders had taken place, saying: “We have no plans to introduce a short-term visa for HGV drivers. Employers should invest in our domestic workforce instead of relying on labour from abroad.”
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