Johnson Set for Trucker Visa U-Turn as Britons Line for Fuel
(Bloomberg) -- The red lines of Boris Johnson’s Brexit project are starting to crack as voters face growing shortages of food and fuel, as well as a marked rise in living costs.
Despite riding to power on a Brexit campaign that pledged to cut immigration from the European Union, the prime minister and his cabinet are now preparing for what would be a significant and politically damaging U-turn: Tapping those same EU workers to plug the labor shortages crippling parts of the U.K. supply chain.
“We’re looking at temporary measures to avoid any immediate problems,” a Downing Street spokesperson said in a statement late on Friday. “But any measures we introduce will be very strictly time limited.”
A major shortage of truck drivers is the most immediate and pressing concern, leading to some petrol stations running out of fuel due to a lack of deliveries. This has prompted panic buying and long queues at some forecourts. The driver shortage is also hitting food supplies, with more than half of U.K. adults reporting more difficulties than usual when shopping over the past two weeks.
Industry leaders across sectors including logistics, hospitality and retail have been lobbying ministers for months on the labor issue, urging them to issue temporary visas to bring in EU workers. The U.K. has a shortage of about 100,000 lorry drivers, according to the Road Haulage Association, a trade body.
According to a report in the Telegraph late Friday, the government is set to issue as many as 5,000 short-term visas for European truck drivers. Home Secretary Priti Patel has dropped her earlier opposition to such a plan, the newspaper said.
Until now the government has rejected the idea, arguing that foreign labor drags down wages and discourages domestic recruitment and training. That position goes to the heart of the Brexit project to remake the economy away from EU rules -- and its labor pool -- and has been a vote winner for Johnson.
“We are moving to a high-wage, high-skilled economy and businesses will need to adapt with more investment in recruitment and training to provide long-term resilience,” the Downing Street spokesperson said.
‘Moving Heaven and Earth’
Ministers have so far responded by accelerating tests for new truck drivers and extending the number of hours they can be on the road without resting.
Yet a serious fuel shortage would ramp up the political peril for Johnson, and ministers met on Friday to discuss potential additional measures.
Earlier on Friday, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps told BBC Radio that the government was “moving heaven and earth” to fix supply issues, and didn’t rule out changing visa rules or deploying the military to assist.
Johnson’s office didn’t immediately reply to a request for comment on whether the government would issue short-term visas for EU workers. The Financial Times reported Johnson has ordered a rapid fix to the driver shortage.
The supply chain crunch has coincided with an energy crisis in the U.K. caused by the surging price of natural gas. Several suppliers have already collapsed, and millions of Britons face significantly higher bills heading into winter.
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