Tories poised to U-turn on foreign worker visas

Ministers are poised to agree an extraordinary post-Brexit U-turn that would allow foreign lorry drivers back into the UK to stave off shortages threatening fuel and food supplies. Boris Johnson ordered a rapid fix on Friday to prevent the crisis escalating. Ministers met in an attempt to agree a short-term visa scheme permitting potentially thousands more lorry drivers from abroad to come to the UK. The prime minister is understood to have weighed in to demand a compromise from his warring cabinet, which was split over the issue, after scenes of chaotic queues at some petrol stations and warnings from suppliers that the shortage of fuel on forecourts could worsen.

On Friday night, forecourt operator EG Group said it would introduce a limit of £30 worth of fuel per customer. The shortage of up 100,000 heavy goods vehicle drivers – exacerbated by the pandemic and Brexit – has also impacted the food sector and other industries. The British Retail Consortium warned on Friday that significant disruption to Christmas was “inevitable” unless the problem was contained in the next 10 days. Amid growing alarm within government about the threat to supermarket and fuel supplies, ministers are poised to allow lorry drivers to come to the UK on short-term visas, probably for a number of months.

While many have blamed Brexit for the shortage of drivers, Downing Street claimed it was a “temporary Covid-related shortage” also suffered by other countries around the world. On Friday night, cabinet sources said discussions were ongoing but the plan was expected to be signed off over the weekend. The move will be seen as a remarkable climbdown, as Johnson’s Brexit campaign was founded on giving the UK more control over immigration and ending free movement. Under the current system, lorry drivers do not meet the threshold for skills that would qualify them to come to the UK.

The Home Office had been opposed to adding HGV drivers to the formal occupation shortage list but is thought to have been convinced to back a more short-term visa scheme. Grant Shapps, the transport secretary, was also initially sceptical but on Friday he pledged to “move heaven and earth” to solve the problem, and said all options were on the table. Stephen Barclay, the Cabinet Office minister, was also in favour and among the ministers who were meeting on Friday to finalise the solution. The Home Office will ultimately have to sign off the decision on whether to relax immigration restrictions for drivers, with the government recognising that something has to be done.

A Whitehall source said cabinet ministers opposed to the shortage-occupation-list solution would prefer a plan to tempt back to the sector some of the 600,000 people with heavy goods licences not currently employed as drivers.

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