Britain expected to ease visa rules as truck driver shortage bites

© Reuters/PETER CZIBORRA FILE PHOTO: Truck drivers wanted as UK supply chains buckle

By Michael Holden

LONDON (Reuters) – Britain is expected to announce plans to issue temporary visas to truck drivers to alleviate an acute labour shortage that has led to fuel rationing at some filling stations and warnings from retailers ( of significant disruption in the run-up to Christmas.

© Reuters/PHIL NOBLE FILE PHOTO: Hand written signs are stuck to a petrol pump with no fuel available at a Shell filling station in Manchester

As queues started forming outside filling stations early on Saturday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s office said it was looking at temporary measures to address the shortage of heavy goods vehicle (HGV) drivers.

Newspapers reported that the government would allow up to 5,000 foreign drivers into Britain on short-term visas, a measure that logistics companies and retailers have demanded for months but which the government had previously ruled out.

The UK’s Road Haulage Association (RHA) says Britain needs 100,000 more drivers if it is to meet demand. The driver shortage has been caused partly by Brexit and COVID-19, and the loss of about a year of driver training and testing.

© Reuters/PETER CZIBORRA FILE PHOTO: Truck drivers wanted as UK supply chains buckle

“We’re looking at temporary measures to avoid any immediate problems, but any measures we introduce will be very strictly time limited,” a spokeswoman for Johnson’s Downing Street office said in a statement.

© Reuters/TOBY MELVILLE FILE PHOTO: Britain’s Transport Secretary Grant Shapps walks outside Downing Street in London

Downing Street declined to give further details.

Ministers have cautioned against panic buying, and oil companies say there is no shortage of supplies, merely problems delivering the fuel to the gas stations.

However, long lines of vehicles have begun gathering at petrol stations to fill up after BP said it had to close some of its outlets due to the driver shortages.

Some Shell stations have also reported pumps running dry while ExxonMobil’s Esso has also said a small number of its 200 Tesco Alliance retail sites had also been impacted in some way.

EG Group, which runs hundreds of forecourts across Britain, said on Friday it would impose a purchase limit of 30 pounds ($41) per customer for fuel due to the “unprecedented customer demand”.

“We have ample fuel stocks in this country and the public should be reassured there are no shortages,” the Downing Street spokeswoman said.

“But like countries around the world we are suffering from a temporary COVID-related shortage of drivers needed to move supplies around the country.”

The fuel issue comes as Britain, the world’s fifth-largest economy, also grapples with a spike in European natural gas prices causing soaring energy prices and a potential food supply crunch.

Other countries such as the United States and Germany are also dealing with truck driver shortages.

Britain says the long-term solution is for more British drivers to be hired, with the RHA saying better pay and conditions are needed to attract people into the industry.

But the retail industry has warned that unless the government acts to address the shortage in the next 10 days, then significant disruption is inevitable in the run-up to Christmas.

($1 = 0.7311 pounds)

(Reporting by Michael Holden and Guy Faulconbridge; Editing by Frances Kerry)

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