(Bloomberg) -- Boris Johnson caved in to industry demands to issue visas to foreign truck drivers, as a crisis that’s led to empty supermarket shelves and panic-buying at gas stations threatens to undermine his government.
Amid warnings of shortages through Christmas, the government said late Saturday it will issue 5,000 visas to lorry drivers and 5,500 to poultry workers, to help companies overcome a staff shortage that’s been exacerbated by the post-Brexit clampdown on immigration from the European Union. It also drafted in Army examiners to conduct truck-driving tests over the next 12 weeks.
Read more: Brexit Red Lines Crack as Britons Line Up for Fuel and Food
It’s a significant U-turn for Johnson on one of the key red lines of his Brexit project, which the prime minister talked up as an opportunity to remake the British economy away from the EU’s rules and its labor pool. Ministers have argued that relying on the bloc’s workers dragged down domestic wages and discouraged recruitment and training.
But the worsening crisis forced his hand, with images of long queues at gas station forecourts potentially holding more political peril than allowing thousands of European truckers to plug labor gaps on short-term visas.
The food and fuel shortages come on top of other daunting challenges facing Johnson’s government, with Britons facing a surge in electricity prices just as some key pandemic support measures are unwound.
‘Winter of Discontent’
Newspapers have started referring to a “winter of discontent,” a politically charged phrase evoking memories of 1978-79 when the U.K. economy was brought to its knees by strikes and severe weather. It ultimately brought down the Labour government, ushering in the Conservatives under Margaret Thatcher.
The strength of Johnson’s Tories, with their parliamentary majority of more than 80, mean there are -- for now -- limited parallels with that era.
Still, the various crises come at a bad time for Johnson and threaten to undermine his plan to draw a line under the pandemic and focus on delivering on his 2019 election promises.
Any sign of disruption over Christmas is also particularly damaging; he faced widespread criticism for tightening Covid rules -- in another U-turn -- last holiday season.
“After a very difficult 18 months, I know how important this Christmas is for all of us and that’s why we’re taking these steps,” Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said in a statement announcing the new measures.
The government also said:
- The new visas apply for 12 weeks, and only to food and fuel lorry drivers
- It’s investing 10 million pounds ($13.7 million) to train up to 3,000 more heavy goods vehicle drivers
- Another 1,000 drivers will be taught in local centers using the adult education budget
- It’s sending out almost a million letters to all drivers who currently hold an HGV license to encourage them back into the industry
The measures were announced after petrol shortages worsened, leading to long tailbacks and many gas stations running out of one or more types of fuel. Reports of the problems had a cascading effect as drivers rushed to fill their tanks. Highway signs announced which service areas were out of supplies.
An estimated 1% of Britain’s 8,380 petrol stations are closed at the moment. Estimates on shortages vary for different suppliers and can change rapidly. The BBC reported that about 20 of BP’s petrol forecourts were closed, and 50 to 100 were short at least one grade of fuel.
The government has maintained that there’s ample supply of fuel in the U.K., but the trucker shortage has hampered distribution to forecourts. Britain is short about 100,000 heavy goods vehicle (HGV) drivers licensed to operate trucks or lorries, the Road Haulage Association has estimated.
The British Retail Consortium said the new measures aren’t enough to alleviate supply chain problems, and called on the government to expand the visa program to HGV drivers in all sectors of the retail industry.
British Chambers of Commerce President Ruby McGregor-Smith also criticized the government, saying it should have agreed a managed transition plan with business to help them move away from a reliance on EU workers after Brexit.
“This announcement is the equivalent of throwing a thimble of water on a bonfire,” McGregor-Smith said.
For its part, the government said it still sees higher pay as the long-term solution to the HGV driver shortage.
“We are acting now but the industries must also play their part with working conditions continuing to improve and the deserved salary increases continuing to be maintained in order for companies to retain new drivers,” Shapps said.
Threatening to compound the U.K.’s fuel woes is the fate of Stanlow, one of the country’s largest oil refineries. The Times newspaper reported late Saturday that the refinery, which produces about a sixth of the country’s road fuels, may be on the brink of collapse. Stanlow didn’t immediately respond to calls outside of normal business hours.
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