Fewer than half of the 300 visas offered by London to European Union lorry drivers to help ease Britain’s fuel supply crisis have been taken up, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Tuesday.
He claimed that 127 applications had been received, disputing a figure in The Times newspaper that said only 27 had been filed.
“It’s 127, not 27, and it’s a fascinating illustration of the problem of the shortage,” Johnson told BBC television on the sidelines of his Conservative Party’s annual conference in Manchester, northwest England.
“What we’ve said to the road haulage industry was, ‘fine, give us the names of the drivers that you want to bring in and we’ll sort out the visas’.
“They’ve only produced 127 names so far.”
Fears over a shortage of tanker drivers have sparked panic buying of fuel over the last two weeks, leading to pumps running dry across the country.
Many stations are still without fuel, and the army was called in on Monday to help out with deliveries.
Frustrations boiled over into anger in some places, and violence even broke out between motorists desperate to fill up, including with jerrycans and old water bottles.
Johnson insisted the shortage of lorry drivers was a global issue, although he acknowledged “a particular problem in the UK”.
The shortages in Britain have been exacerbated by Brexit, which saw many eastern European drivers return home as free movement between member states of the bloc ended, and tighter immigration rules were introduced.
Shortfalls in drivers and foreign workers have raised fears of more general shortages, with supermarkets struggling to stock up before Christmas.
But Johnson again refused to ease entry rules further for foreign workers, even as leaders of several sectors, including retail and hospitality, say they lacked staff.
“Well, the supply chain problem is caused very largely by strength of economic recovery, and what you will see is brilliant logistics experts in our supermarket chains, in our food processing industry, getting to grips with it,” Johnson said.
“But the shortage is global, and what I’m saying is that what you can’t do is go back to the old failed model where you mainline low-wage, low-skill labour.”