Thousands of petrol stations have run dry amid “frenzied” panic buying as ministers were warned their plan for solving the HGV driver shortage would not prevent bare shop shelves this Christmas.
The Government has announced a temporary visa scheme that will see 5,000 foreign HGV drivers and 5,500 poultry workers allowed into the UK on three-month contracts up to Christmas Eve in an attempt to keep supermarket shelves stocked with turkeys and tackle fuel delivery difficulties.
But the British Retail Consortium warned the decision to relax immigration rules to fix supply chain issues was “too little, too late” for the festive season.
Director of food and sustainability policy Andrew Opie, asked what shop shelves might look like at Christmas, told the BBC: “I think we’re going to see less choice, less availability, possibly shorter shelf life as well, which is really disappointing because this could have been averted.
“I think it’s inevitable now, just through the shortage of drivers, that we won’t be able to get all the products on to the shelves that we would have liked to.”
The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) said the “limited scope” of the Government’s announcement had “surprised many” and called for a “Cobra-like” committee to help alleviate the short term pressures being experienced as the economy bounces back after the coronavirus pandemic.
Union Unite said the visa initiative was an invitation to “plunder workers from other nations” that amounted to “propping up a broken and exploitative system”.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer suggested he would back creating enough visas to fill all 100,000 vacancies in the haulage industry, telling the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show: “We have to issue enough visas to cover the number of drivers that we need.”
The reaction comes as lengthy queues at petrol stations continued as motorists looked to fill-up following leaked concerns that a lack of specialist tanker drivers could have a knock-on effect on the ability of fuel companies to restock the pumps.
The Petrol Retailers Association, which represents almost 5,500 independent outlets, said around two-thirds of its members were reporting that they had sold out of fuel, with the rest of them “partly dry and running out soon”.
Chairman Brian Madderson told the BBC the shortages were down to “panic buying, pure and simple” as he hit out at whoever leaked BP’s initial supply concerns to the media following a meeting with Government earlier this month.
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps appeared to suggest the leak had come from industry body the Road Haulage Association, a charge senior figures at the organisation have denied.
Mr Madderson said it was the leak that sparked the “frenzied buying” at the pumps over the past days, adding: “Whoever leaked it to a main broadcaster must have known the chaos that would ensue as soon as it hit newspapers, and that’s what we’ve had.”
During Sunday broadcast interviews, Mr Shapps called for the public to be “sensible” and only fill up their cars when needed as there is “plenty of fuel” available.
But he admitted to Times Radio that the truck driver shortage could take “years to fully unwind”.
The Cabinet minister admitted he “didn’t want” to allow foreign workers in to fill the workforce gaps, having said only on Friday that importing labour could drive down wages, but said the Government had acted to reassure queueing motorists.
The Transport Secretary told Marr he was confident his offer of 5,000 visas would ease the “100 to 200” shortfall of fuel tanker drivers, as he predicted the pump queues would start to “resolve” themselves partly due to the difficulty in stockpiling petrol.
Mr Shapps said visas were “only one element” of the state intervention, with ministers planning to train 4,000 more lorry drivers, while the Army have been drafted in to provide extra HGV driving tests to reduce the “bottleneck” caused by the pandemic lockdowns.
Nearly one million letters will also be landing on the doormats of people with HGV licences in the coming days enticing them to return to the job now that wages have risen.
The Government is keen to see better conditions in terms of truck-stop facilities as it bids to shift the workforce demographic from being mostly white, male and in their mid-50s.