The government wants employers to invest in UK-based workers rather than relying on labour from abroad as businesses contend with a shortage of HGV drivers.
Supermarkets and suppliers are struggling to meet demand following an exodus of drivers from EU countries, who returned to the continent during the pandemic and remained there.
This is coupled with the health crisis bringing DVLA testing centres to a standstill, creating a huge backlog of drivers taking their HGV test.
A review of the Shortage Occupations list, which sets out jobs where overseas workers can apply for visas, is not due until next year.
Proposals had been floated for the government to bring forward the review so HGV drivers could be included to ease the problems facing the supply chain.
But according to the Financial Times, Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng wrote to business leaders on Friday saying foreign labour only offered “a short-term, temporary solution”.
The newspaper said Kwarteng urged employers to help the “many UK-based workers (who) now face an uncertain future and need to find new employment opportunities”.
His letter comes ahead of the UK’s furlough scheme ending on 30 September.
According to the FT, Kwarteng said in his letter to the British Retail Consortium and Logistics UK: “I am sure you would agree on the importance of utilising the strength of our domestic workforce and how our migration policies need to be considered alongside our strategies to ensure UK-based workers are better able to secure decent employment opportunities.”
A government spokeswoman said: “We have a highly resilient food supply chain and well-established ways of working with the food sector to address food supply chain disruptions.
“We recently announced a package of measures to help tackle the HGV driver shortage, including plans to streamline the process for new drivers to gain their HGV licence and to increase the number of driving tests able to be conducted.
“However, most of the solutions are likely to be driven by industry, with progress already being made in testing and hiring, and a big push towards improving pay, working conditions and diversity.
“We want to see employers make long-term investments in the UK domestic workforce instead of relying on labour from abroad and our Plan for Jobs is helping people across the country retrain, build new skills and get back into work.”
Several government departments are liaising over the supply chain issues, including the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy department, the Home Office, the Department for Transport, the Department for Education, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and the Department for Work and Pensions.
Home Office pushback
Home Office officials are said to be blocking the review being brought forward, amid concerns it could lead to other sectors demanding inclusion.
A source told PA: “It has been floated and seems like the obvious solution but there’s been a lot of pushback from the Home Office.”
HGV drivers are currently not included on the list but there is pressure from supermarkets to include them to help ease the shortfall while more UK drivers are trained.
The current average age of a UK HGV driver is 55 and ministers are concerned an ageing workforce needs replacing.
Government officials are working closely with the DVLA to increase the number of tests taking place and have vowed to streamline the process. They have also increased funding for apprentices to get more workers into the industry but want to ensure the UK is less reliant on overseas drivers.
The shortages have hit several retailers and restaurant chains.
Nando’s saw a shortage of chickens due to a combination of not enough drivers and fewer staff working in meat factories.
Other delays have also impacted McDonald’s, which said this week it had run out of milkshakes and bottled drinks as it prioritised deliveries of other products in the interim.
Organisations from the food and drink industry have recommended a 12-month Covid-19 recovery visa to help firms recruit staff such as HGV drivers, and an expanded seasonal worker scheme for the horticulture sector.
National Farmers Union vice president Tom Bradshaw said it was “simplistic” to argue that the end of the government’s furlough scheme will lead to an increase in workers to fill the current high number of vacancies.