Just 127 of the 300 visas for tanker drivers to come to the UK immediately have been granted, Boris Johnson has said, as he argued that supply chain problems are caused “very largely by the strength of the economic recovery”.
The Prime Minister told BBC Breakfast: “What we said to the road haulage industry was: ‘Fine, give us the names of the drivers that you want to bring in and we will sort out the visas, you’ve got another 5,000 visas.’
“They only produced 127 names so far.
“What that shows is the global shortage.”
Mr Johnson added: “The supply chain problem is caused very largely by the strength of the economic recovery.
“What you will see is brilliant logistic experts in our supermarket chains, in our food processing industry, getting to grips with it, finding the staff that they need. We will help them in any way that we can.
“But the shortage is global.”
The Department for Transport later clarified that of the 127 visas issued, 27 were for fuel tanker drivers and the remaining 100 were for food hauliers.
The Prime Minister told the BBC: “What you can’t do is go back to the old, failed model where you mainline low-wage, low-skilled labour – very often very hard-working, brave, wonderful people – who come in, working in conditions that frankly are pretty tough, and we shouldn’t be going back to that.”
That had led to a situation where there was not investment in the industry and “people had to urinate in bushes” because of the lack of facilities for drivers, he said.
Mr Johnson has insisted Christmas would be better than last year’s coronavirus-blighted festive season, despite warnings about supply chain problems.
However he has repeatedly refused to rule out shortages in the wider economy in the run-up to Christmas.
As well as an estimated shortfall of 100,000 HGV drivers, businesses from meat producers to retailers have warned of empty shelves if the shortages are not addressed.
“Christmas this year will be very considerably better than last year,” Mr Johnson told the BBC.
“I think we have very reliable supply chains in this country.”
He added: “There are obviously issues that we have to address, there have been shortages in lorry drivers around the world.
“There are shortages of lorry drivers in China at the moment because the world economy is growing again.”
However the Road Haulage Association (RHA) disagreed with Mr Johnson’s comments over the Government asking for names of European lorry drivers they want to work in the UK.
Rod McKenzie, managing director of policy and public affairs at the RHA, told the PA news agency: “There isn’t a database of lorry drivers with names attached to them and want to work in Britain that British lorry firms can tap into and say: ‘We’ll have that one, that one, that one or that one.’ It doesn’t work like that, it doesn’t exist.
“The only way it works is the Government advertises that short-term visas are available, Europeans think about it, decide whether they want to or don’t want to, and act accordingly. And, clearly, only 127 to date have acted accordingly.”
Mr McKenzie added that while he had seen reports that 27 drivers had applied compared to Mr Johnson stating that 127 had applied, he said he did not know how many had actually applied as the association was not privy to that information.
He added: “Why would you give up a well-paid job in Europe, to come and drive a truck in Britain for a very short period of time when you have to get a six-month let on a flat and go through all the hassle, initially to be chucked out on Christmas Eve, but now, we’re told, for a bit later?
“It is not an attractive offer and, effectively, what Europeans have done is kind of vote with their feet on that.”
The Prime Minister’s comments came as average petrol prices rose 0.91p a litre in a week from 135.19p last week to 136.1p on Tuesday, and diesel 1.7p from 137.9p to 139.2p, according to new Government figures.
It is the highest level for petrol since it cost 136.9p in September 2013, and for diesel since it was 139.15p in October of the same year.