AFP – Britain’s transport secretary accused lorry industry representatives of helping to spark petrol panic-buying, as he defended a U-turn on post-Brexit immigration policy to ease an escalating supply crisis.
Grant Shapps’s comments came hours after the government said it will issue up to 10,500 short-term work visas to lorry drivers and poultry workers to ease chronic staff shortages that have hit supplies to various sectors.
Disruption spread to fuel retailers this week after a number run by BP and ExxonMobil-owned Esso were forced to close to customers because of a lack of deliveries – immediately prompting long queues forming at numerous petrol stations.
But in broadcast interviews, Shapps claimed a road haulage association leak to the media about potential fuel delivery shortages had contributed to the panic-buying and blamed the industry for being “counterproductive”.
“There has been some pretty irresponsible briefing out by one of the road haulage associations which has helped to spark a crisis and that’s very, very unhelpful,” he told Sky News.
Shapps, who insisted there was no actual fuel shortfall at UK refineries and storage facilities, accused the haulage industry of being “desperate” to employ more European drivers and “undercutting British salaries”.
“I know that’s been their ask all along,” he added.
But Rod McKenzie, of the Road Haulage Association – reportedly alleged to have made the leak – called the claim “nonsense”.
He said the government needed to encourage a “holistic” approach to the numerous problems the industry faces.
The decision to expand temporarily the critical worker visa scheme is a reversal by Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government, which has tightened post-Brexit immigration rules insisting that Britain’s reliance on foreign labour must end.
It had resisted offering more visas for months, despite an estimated shortage of around 100,000 heavy goods vehicle (HGV) drivers and warnings from various sectors that the pandemic and Brexit had combined to worsen the situation.
As well as threatening timely fuel supplies, the lack of lorry drivers has hit British factories, restaurants and supermarkets in recent weeks and months.
In response, Shapps unveiled a package of measures late on Saturday that he insisted would tackle short and long-term problems.
The new temporary visas – 5,000 earmarked for HGV drivers, 5,500 for poultry workers, to run from next month until Dec 24 – are aimed at easing backlogs in the run-up to Christmas.
Other measures will focus on rapidly expanding the number of new domestic drivers, and include deploying Ministry of Defence driving examiners to help provide thousands of extra tests over the next 12 weeks.
But Ruby McGregor-Smith, president of the British Chambers of Commerce, has dismissed the new measures as “the equivalent of throwing a thimble of water on a bonfire”.
Meanwhile Kate Martin, chairwoman of the Traditional Farm Fresh Turkey Association, blamed Christmas supply concerns squarely on the new post-Brexit immigration rules.
“For sure it has come from a lack of labour,” she said.
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