More than 10,000 foreign workers will be given temporary visas to work as lorry drivers and in the food sector in the UK.
The visa scheme comes as ministers seek to rescue Christmas from supply shortages, which has left supermarket shelves bare and led to fuel shortages at petrol stations.
Keeping festive preparations 'on track'
The temporary visas will create opportunities for 5,000 HGV drivers and 5,500 poultry workers to work in the UK until Christmas Eve.
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said the visas will be available from next month and will “ensure preparations remain on track” for the festive season.
Retailers had warned the government that it had just 10 days to save Christmas from “significant disruption” due to a shortage of around 90,000 drivers in the freight sector.
The Ministry of Defence (MoD) will also provide examiners for lorry driving tests as ministers aim to increase the size of the workforce.
The loan of MoD examiners to work alongside Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency (DVSA) employees will help to put on “thousands of extra tests” over the next 12 weeks.
Announcing the scheme, Mr Shapps said: “This package of measures builds on the important work we have already done to ease this global crisis in the UK, and this government continues to do everything we can to help the haulage and food industries contend with the HGV driver shortage.
“We are acting now but the industries must also play their part, with working conditions continuing to improve and the deserved salary increases continuing to be maintained in order for companies to retain new drivers.
“After a very difficult 18 months, I know how important this Christmas is for all of us and that’s why we’re taking these steps at the earliest opportunity to ensure preparations remain on track.”
The visa changes have been welcomed by the Food and Drink Federation and Logistics UK, with federation chief Ian Wright calling the measures “pragmatic”.
However, British Chamber of Commerce president Baroness McGregor-Smith said the changes were the “equivalent of throwing a thimble of water on a bonfire” and stressed that the temporary measure would “not be enough to address the scale of the problem”.
‘Not a long term solution’
The relaxation to immigratin rules comes amid chaotic scenes at petrol stations across the UK, where panicked drivers have been rushing to refuel their cars following fears of shortages.
The lack of specialised tanker rivers has forced some garages to shut their pumps and ration sales, with hundreds of petrol stations enforcing a £30 fuel limit.
In the coming days, nearly one million letters will be landing on the doormats of people with HGV licences to encourage those who have left the industry to return.
The letter will set out the steps the haulage sector is taking to improve industry conditions, including increased wages, flexible working and fixed hours, according to the Department for Transport.
While the Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated a global shortage of lorry drivers, there have been long-term issues in the UK with labour numbers amid an ageing workforce, low wages and poor truck stop conditions.
The DfT said it recognised that importing foreign labour “will not be the long term solution” to the problem and it wants to see investment poured into establishing a domestic workforce.
As part of efforts to improve the situation, the Department for Education will invest up to £10 million into creating new “skills bootcamps” to train up to 3,000 more people to become HGV drivers.
The free, intensive courses will train drivers to undertake an entry level HGV licence (Category C) or a more advanced course to operate heavier and longer lorries (Category C&E).
Another 1,000 people are expected to be trained through courses accessed locally and funded by the Government’s adult education budget.
Those accessing medical and HGV licences through the adult budget in the 2021/22 academic year will have their qualifications paid for by the state, with the funding backdated to anyone who started one of these qualifications on or after 1 August.
More DVSA examiners will also be freed up to conduct lorry driver tests.
The government said it has already streamlined the process for new HGV drivers, while increasing the number of driving tests available to allow for an extra 50,000 tests to take place per year.
This article originally appeared on our sister site, NationalWorld.