UK to issue thousands of temporary truck driver visas to ease supply-chain problems

UK on Saturday said it would issue thousands of emergency visas to foreign truck drivers to help fix supply-chain problems that have caused empty supermarket shelves, long lines at gas stations and shuttered pumps.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservative government had resisted easing immigration rules, despite warnings from businesses that the driver shortage could lead to problems.

Experts say the United Kingdom is short of tens of thousands of truckers, due to a perfect storm of factors including the coronavirus pandemic, an aging workforce and an exodus of foreign workers following Britain’s departure from the European Union.

Post-Brexit immigration rules mean newly arrived EU citizens can no longer work visa-free in Britain, as they could when the UK was a member of the trade bloc. Trucking companies have been urging the British government to loosen immigration rules so drivers can more easily be recruited from across Europe.

The government, which has touted the ability to control immigration as one of the chief benefits of Brexit, was reluctant. But on Saturday it said it was acting because of the “exceptional circumstances this year.”

The government said it would issue 5,000 three-month visas for truck drivers starting in October, and another 5,500 for poultry workers. But it stuck to its insistence that in the long term British workers should be trained to take the driving jobs, and transportation companies must improve their pay and working conditions to keep them.

“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 at the earliest opportunity to ensure preparations remain on track,” Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said.