A government scramble to ease visa requirements for thousands of lorry drivers in an effort to combat the ongoing fuel shortage has come too late to avoid disrupting Christmas, The Independent has learned.
Two days of supply problems at petrol forecourts across the country have prompted panic buying, with long queues of motorists snaking out of service stations.
Shell became the latest fuel operator to complain of shortages, 24 hours after BP, Esso and Tesco reported difficulties, while Asda announced a £30 limit per customer.
In response to the crisis, senior government figures held an emergency meeting on Friday to try to resolve wide-ranging supply-chain problems, agreeing to grant short-term visas to European drivers.
The move, a sign of a U-turn on the post-Brexit hardline approach to immigration, is expected to be announced imminently. It is understood that the decision to relax visas could be extended to include workers in the food supply chain as well, sources told The Independent.
George Eustice, the agriculture secretary, wants to include meat-processing workers in an agreement that grants up to 30,000 six-month visas to those who pick and package fruit and vegetables, a government figure said.
The senior Conservative said this would “just be the start” of increased pressure to ease pinch-points across the economy by changing visa requirements. “This is not [likely to be] done and dusted by Christmas,” they added.
Separately, another senior government official said the mooted shift on visas would not be enough to solve the supply-chain problem by Christmas.
“Some problems simply cannot be resolved very quickly, even if ministers give it their full attention,” said a source. “This is an example of such a problem, and the decision about how to address the issue came rather late in the day.”
No 10 has made it clear that there is “an appetite to show that the government is throwing the kitchen sink at the problem of supply disruptions”, according to the same senior Tory quoted above.
Pressure mounted after photos of queues and empty petrol pumps were widely shared on social media, after suppliers admitted a shortage of hauliers was stopping fuel – which is not itself in short supply – from getting to pumps.
While the number of petrol stations that had to close was “small”, according to Esso and BP, hundreds have run low on certain grades of fuel.
After Friday’s panic buying, a Shell spokesperson said the company was “adapting delivery schedules” in response to large queues at some petrol stations.
During this afternoon’s crunch meeting, some cabinet immigration hardliners were pressed to drop their opposition to visa changes. Kwasi Kwarteng, the business minister, and Priti Patel, the home secretary, were said to have U-turned on the issue in the face of mounting pressure following reports of supply-chain disruption.
But concerns are mounting that ministers are still underestimating the scale of the issue, despite shifting on visas. Logistics industry leaders said problems were likely to get worse over Christmas, even once visa rules were relaxed.
“It will take at least six to 12 months to sort,” said Steve Granite, chief executive of Abbey Logistics, which specialises in fuel deliveries. He accused supermarkets of “stoking the fire” by offering pay rises and bonuses with which fuel companies can’t compete.
Petrol-tanker drivers are typically paid more than lorry drivers carrying non-hazardous loads, but Mr Granite said that even better-paid drivers are now being attracted by the big salary increases being offered by supermarkets.
Industry sources report seeing adverts for lorry drivers offering £35 per hour, with a guarantee of 45 hours per week and only daytime shifts. The rate is equivalent to more than £70,000 per year.
“There are not enough drivers, and you can’t train them and test them fast enough. People are jumping from job to job, and supermarkets are making things much worse by offering headline-grabbing incentives to join,” Mr Granite said.
“But if they don’t have the supply chain behind the supermarket then there’s no point. If we can’t deliver ingredients to the companies making the food supermarkets sell, then what’s the point of them having all the drivers?”
Conservative MP Craig Mackinlay welcomed the idea of relaxing visa rules to ease the crisis, and said he did not think fellow Tory backbenchers would object.
The chair of the all-party parliamentary group for motorists and hauliers said: “I don’t know of one colleague who wouldn’t be happy with it – it’s not a stick-in-the-mud issue about controlling our own visa system and not wanting people in from the EU. Not at all.”
The MP said he hoped pay rises in the sector would encourage more young people to become HGV drivers. “We need to make this job more attractive … but you can’t just turn on the supply of drivers overnight.”
Industry bodies, while welcoming the step, agreed that it would take more than waiving visa requirements to solve the challenge of the driver shortage. Poor working conditions and an ageing workforce have seen depleted numbers of HGV drivers across Germany, as well as in other EU states and the US.
The UK has also introduced a change in tax rules, which is aimed at closing the gap in tax paid by payrolled and self-employed workers. Updates to the rules have hit many workers who might normally have been engaged by an agency or third party to provide services such as fruit picking or lorry driving, according to employers in those sectors.
A government spokesperson said: “We are closely monitoring labour supply and working with sector leaders to understand how we can best ease particular pinch-points. Similar challenges are being faced by other countries around the world.
“We want to see employers make long-term investments in the UK domestic workforce instead of relying on labour from abroad. Our plan for jobs is helping people across the country retrain, build new skills and get back into work.
“The government encourages all sectors to make employment more attractive to UK domestic workers through offering training, careers options, wage increases and investment.”