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10 days to save Christmas: shops warn of disruption due to lack of lorry drivers

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Significant disruption to Christmas is “inevitable” unless an acute shortage of lorry drivers is addressed in the next 10 days, retail bosses have warned, as the government raced to put together plans to keep the supply of food and fuel flowing.

Boris Johnson appeared set to acquiesce to weeks of pressure to introduce short-term visas on Friday, after queues formed at petrol stations and official statistics showed shoppers were struggling to find the items they want.

The U-turn on a temporary scheme to allow more EU hauliers and other workers into the UK comes after the British Retail Consortium (BRC) warned that time is running out to put a solution into practice. The BRC said the driver crisis, which has been blamed on both Covid-19 and Brexit, had left the country without the “glue” that held crucial supply chains together.

“Without them, we are unable to move goods from farms to warehouses to shops,” said Andrew Opie, its director of food and sustainability. “Unless a solution can be found in the next 10 days, it is inevitable that we will see significant disruption in the run-up to Christmas.”

One petrol industry source said they feared it “could be weeks” before fuel supplies return to normal, although they stressed that shortages were at present affecting only a minority of forecourts.

As the government sought to alleviate the problem, figures from the Office of National Statistics revealed that millions of people were already struggling to find the products they were looking for. The ONS said a quarter of British people had reported gaps on supermarket shelves over the past two weeks, with one in six reporting difficulty in finding “essential” items.

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Six in 10 people had noticed differences when food shopping, most commonly a lack of variety in the products available. Four in 10 said they couldn’t find everything they wanted to buy.

Relatively few people, 4%, reported being unable to get hold of fuel or medicine, but 13% reported waiting longer than usual for prescriptions.

Hauliers, who have repeatedly called for short-term visas to fix the delivery crisis, gave a cautious welcome to the apparent climbdown.

“This would be a welcome commitment from the government after we’ve consistently said firms need to be able to hire drivers from overseas to plug gaps in the short term,” said Rod McKenzie, managing director of policy and public affairs at the RHA. “It won’t resolve the driver shortage on its own, but is a step in the right direction. Much more needs to be done on training, apprenticeships, testing and welfare facilities for drivers.”

Trade associations representing all areas of the UK’s food chain – including the National Farmers Union, the Road Haulage Association, the Food and Drink Federation and the British Meat Processors Association – have previously proposed a special one-year visa that would allow workers to enter the UK to fill vacancies for lorry drivers, as well as butchers, chefs and other food industry roles.

About 25,000 HGV drivers from the EU left during 2020 and did not return, while there is also a backlog of 40,000 people waiting to take their HGV tests. The current workforce is also ageing, with an average age of 57.

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Prominent Brexit supporters in business and economics insisted that the UK’s departure from the European Union was not to blame. Tim Martin, the boss of pub chain Wetherspoons, told the Guardian: “I’ve always argued that a reasonably liberal immigration policy is a social and economic plus for the UK. A sensible reciprocal visa system, similar to Australia’s with the UK, would benefit both parties.

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“It’s complete cobblers to characterise immigration as being antithetical to Brexit. It’s not – all successful economies recognise the need for sensible immigration policies – although to be fair, I am not sure whether the government understands this.”

Martin’s criticism echoes the dismay expressed by Lord Wolfson, the Brexit-backing boss of retailer Next, who has called Britain’s immigration policy “insane” and blamed the Home Office for preventing lorry drivers coming to the UK.

Gerard Lyons, a Brexit-supporting economist and former adviser to Boris Johnson, said that low pay and red tape in the training and licensing process for lorry drivers were the key reasons for the shortage, but admitted Brexit was a factor.

“It’s about higher pay to attract people back into it [HGV driving], fast-forwarding the process by which people can train and obtain a licence, and then, if necessary, on top of that, easing visa restrictions.

“Of course there’s some impact from Brexit, but that needs to be put in context. If one believes that’s the trigger for this, one will misdiagnose the problem and not come up with the solution. “It would be wrong to go straight to visa restrictions being eased, because it’s a multitude of issues.”

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The Road Haulage Association said the government was not taking the problem seriously enough. “The average age of a truck driver in the UK is 57. Every day this problem is just getting worse as more and more retire,” said Rod McKenzie, the managing director of policy and public affairs at the RHA.

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Petrol companies highlighted figures showing that only a fraction of the UK’s 8,386 petrol stations had been affected.

BP raised the alarm earlier this week, saying it had closed some forecourts and was experiencing shortages of certain grades of fuel at others, as its logistics supplier Hoyer wrestled with staff shortages. Hoyer is understood to have up to 450 drivers delivering fuel to BP on any given day, about 20 fewer than it needs. Between 50 and 100 of the 1,200 BP-branded forecourts are missing at least one grade of fuel, while around 20 are shut.

Esso said a “small number” of the 200 petrol stations it operates with Tesco were affected, but that it could not comment on approximately 1,000 that have the company’s branding but are operated independently.

“We are working closely with all parties in our distribution network to optimise supplies and minimise any inconvenience to customers,” said a spokesperson. “We apologise to our customers for any inconvenience.”

A spokesperson for Shell, whose branding appears on 1,100 petrol stations, said: “We are seeing an increased demand today for fuel at some of our stations, which may in some instances result in larger queues. We are adapting our delivery schedules to ensure sufficient supplies for our customers.”