Cabinet ministers are meeting this afternoon to discuss potentially relaxing immigration rules as fuel becomes the latest victim of the country’s chronic lack of lorry drivers.
Ministers including Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster Stephen Barclay, who is responsible for tackling supply chain disruption, and Transport Secretary Grant Shapps will discuss how to respond to the ongoing labour shortages, with temporarily relaxing rules for EU workers now on the table, PoliticsHome understands.
The Financial Times this afternoon reported that Boris Johnson had given ministers the green light to relax immigration rules, in what would be a spectacular government U-turn.
A source familiar with the situation is reported to have said the Prime Minister is “completely fed up with bad headlines” about supply chain disruption and “doesn’t care about visa limits anymore”.
Two government sources told PoliticsHome that no final decision had been made at the time of writing.
The government has been adamant that it will not relax immigration rules in response to the dearth of lorry drivers. The long-standing shortage, put down to poor pay, unpleasant working conditions and an aging workforce, has been exacerbated by Brexit and the coronavirus pandemic.
Home Secretary Priti Patel and Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng are believed to have been the senior ministers most opposed to relaxing immigration rules.
Ministers have urged businesses to recruit more British workers and have put in place measures designed to speed up the rate at which people can take lorry driver tests, in order to make up the shortfall. The Road Haulage Association estimates the country is short of around 100,000 drivers.
However, the government has come under growing pressure to change its mind in recent weeks as the lorry driver shortage has wreacked havoc across a wide range of industries.
It has led to delays in products reaching supermarket shelves and household names like McDonald’s, Greggs, and Ikea running out of certain items. The Food & Drink Federation’s Ian Wright last week said one in five orders made by hospitality businesses were simply not arriving.
The crisis took another serious turn on Thursday when some of the UK’s largest fuel providers said they had been forced to close a small number of petrol stations due to fuel not reaching them. BP said a “handful” of its petrol stations had been forced to shut because of a lack of access to fuel, while Esso and Tesco also reported problems with supply.
Footage posted on social media today showed long queues of cars at petrol stations, despite people being urged by the government not to panic buy.
A multitude of trade groups have spent the last few weeks urging ministers to make it easier to hire lorry drivers and other workers from the continent by adding them to the Shortage Occupation List.
14,000 EU drivers are estimated to have left the UK in the year to June 2020, according to recent Logistics UK analysis of Office for National Statistics data, and the government’s post-Brexit immigration system has made it much harder for them to come back and rejoin the profession.
Logistics UK estimates just 600 of those drivers have returned to the country.
The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) earlier this month warned that labour shortages could last another two years without urgent action, with the body’s director-general Tony Danker warning: “Standing firm and waiting for shortages to solve themselves is not the way to run an economy.”
PoliticsHome provides the most comprehensive coverage of UK politics anywhere on the web, offering high quality original reporting and analysis: Subscribe