European lorry drivers are set to shun the UK – despite Boris Johnson’s expected easing of visa rules for truckers as the country’s fuel crisis escalates.
The head of the European Road Haulers Association (UETR) told the i newspaper that drivers on the continent would likely ignore the UK in favour of “higher pay and better working conditions” across Europe.
The scheme, which reports suggest will temporarily lift visa restrictions for foreign drivers, is to be a “short-term solution” to ease pressure on deliveries in the run-up to Christmas.
The Financial Times and the Telegraph reported up to 5,000 temporary visas could be granted for HGV drivers while the FT also said a similar number would be approved for food processing workers, especially in the poultry industry.
It comes amid scenes of lengthy queues at petrol stations after a shortage of HGV drivers forced some fuel retailers to shut their pumps and ration sales.
Brexit to blame
“I expect many drivers will not return to the UK even if the UK Government allows them to,” said Marco Digioia, the general secretary of UETR – which represents more than 70 per cent of trucking companies across the EU.
“While offering visas to drivers on the continent would be a welcome step, there are many other issues, such as working conditions, pay, and the costs of getting into and working in the UK.”
While Grant Shapps, the transport secretary, suggested Brexit was not to blame for the driver problem, industry figures see it differently.
Digioia told the i that “it is not surprising” that Britain is witnessing shortages. “There are two reasons,” he said. “Number one is Brexit, and number two is Covid.
“There are driver shortages right across Europe as well, but the EU has committed to improving driver facilities and haulage companies are committed to improving pay and conditions.
“Until the UK offers the same pay and working conditions as drivers have in the EU then many will stay away.”
Earlier this week, Brussels pledged a significant financial package to build new trucking infrastructure, such as parking areas, with better conditions for drivers.
And the industry figures in the UK believe the granting of temporary visas to EU workers is only part of the solution. Experts suggest the industry is short of about 90,000 drivers.
One freight transport boss was sceptical about whether the shortages being experienced in the sector would be resolved by relaxing immigration rules.
Toby Ovens, managing director of Broughton Transport Solutions, asked on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme whether such a scheme could help alleviate the vacancies, Mr Ovens said: “No, I think a lot of what we’re seeing at the minute is down to essentially the driver wages.
“Margins in haulage are very tight and the reality is the money isn’t there to pay the increased wages without substantial price increases to customers.”
But the Confederation of British Industry said there was “huge relief” at the prospect of a softening of policy on foreign workers being allowed into the UK to mitigate the issue.
Director general Tony Danker told BBC Breakfast: “Hopefully it is going to happen and it is a huge relief. We’ve been calling for it for three months.
“We could see this problem coming and more problems coming, and so it’s a shame the government needed queues at the pumps to move, but move I hope they have and it will help.”