While the Opposition has blamed Brexit for the crisis, the government insists the shortage is a temporary supply issue in the wake of the pandemic which will be resolved alongside investments in long-term training.
The government confirmed on Saturday night that 5,000 fuel tanker and food truck drivers will be eligible to work in the UK for three months.
The scheme is also being extended to 5,500 poultry workers to meet supplies for the Christmas season.
“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 (heavy goods vehicle) driver shortage,” said UK Transport Secretary Grant Shapps.
“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,” he said.
Recruitment for additional short-term HGV drivers and poultry workers will begin next month, with visas valid until December 24, Christmas eve.
The Seasonal Worker route under the UK’s points-based system will be used as a basis for this scheme, with the list of eligible countries including Austria, Belgium, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands, North Macedonia, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Spain, Sweden and Turkey.
“Visas will not be the long-term solution, and reform within the industry is vital. That’s why the government continues to support the industry in solving this issue through improved testing and hiring, with better pay, working conditions and diversity,” the Department for Education (DfE) said.
The DfE said it is investing up to 10 million pounds to create new Skills Bootcamps to train up to 3,000 more people to become HGV drivers.
The free, short, intensive courses will train drivers to be “road ready” and an additional 1,000 people are expected to be trained through courses accessed locally and funded by the government’s adult education budget.
Amid fuel shortages and long queues at some petrol stations in the country, the government said it will work with industry on speeding up the additional safety qualifications required by fuel tanker drivers.
It said the Ministry of Defence (MoD) is also announcing the immediate deployment of their Defence Driving Examiners (DDEs) to increase the country’s driver testing capacity.
Meanwhile, Shapps insisted on Sunday that there is “no shortage of fuel” and people should be “sensible” and only fill up when they need to.
But business leaders have warned the visa scheme and other measures aimed at fixing a shortage of HGV drivers “will not be enough”.
“Supermarkets alone have estimated they need at least 15,000 HGV drivers for their businesses to be able to operate at full capacity ahead of Christmas and avoid disruption or availability issues,” said Andrew Opie, director of food and sustainability at the British Retail Consortium.
Opposition Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said the fuel issues and shortage of HGV drivers showed a “complete lack of planning” by the government.
“For a long time, we have known there is a problem with HGV drivers that’s been there for years but we knew in particular that when we exited the EU (European Union), there would be a need for a back-up plan to deal with the situation and there has been no plan from the government,” Starmer added.