27 September 2021, 11:25 AM
  • While the news of the short-term visa scheme was largely welcomed by food and farming trade groups, business leaders warn it will not be enough to fix the supply chain crisis
Visa scheme won’t fix labour shortage, food groups say

Up to 10,500 lorry drivers and poultry workers will be able to receive temporary, three-month UK visas to ease supply chain disruption in the run-up to Christmas, the Government said.

The UK has faced a shortage of HGV drivers and other workers across the food and farming supply chain, largely due to Covid and Brexit, which has resulted in empty shelves at some supermarkets. Data from the Office for National Statistics revealed that around one in six adults in Britain were not able to buy essential food items at some point between 8th-19th September. Meanwhile, 20% said the items they needed were not available and they could not find a replacement.

The situation became even more challenging over the last week as fuel deliveries were affected and panic buying at petrol stations left some forecourts running dry, while carbon dioxide shortages led CO2 prices to spike.

Additional solutions needed

While the Food and Drink Federation welcomed the “pragmatic” decision to temporarily add HGV drivers and poultry workers to the existing visa scheme, chief executive Ian Wright said other “long-term solutions” will be needed to alleviate the pressure of labour shortages.

“This is a start, but we need the Government to continue to collaborate with industry and seek additional long-term solutions,” he said.

Andrew Opie, director of food and sustainability at the British Retail Consortium, agreed that the limited number will “do little to alleviate the current shortfall. Supermarkets alone have estimated they need at least 15,000 HGV drivers for their businesses to be able to operate at full capacity ahead of Christmas and avoid disruption or availability issues,” he said.

The NFU’s vice president Tom Bradshaw said he was looking forward to working with the Government to apply the scheme for poultry workers and, in particular, smaller producers. He said the NFU would continue working with the Government to find solutions for the wider industry’s labour needs, “including trained and able butchers for pork production to deal with the increasingly serious build-up of pigs on farm and the risk of welfare issues.”

Tom reiterated calls for a 12-month Covid Recovery Visa to help the sector through this difficult period. “The Government argues that the solution to the crisis lies in increasing wages and training more UK-based workers rather than relying on workers from overseas. We all understand that there is work to do, but a short-term 12-month Covid Recovery Visa will help us all.”

Poultry farmers have warned that the measures have come too late to ramp up production in the coming months. But while the largest producers may not be able to adjust their processes, Paul Kelly of KellyBronze farm told the BBC that smaller producers will be better prepared due to the fact that they tend to recruit local labour.

‘A thimble of water to put out a bonfire’

Some groups have welcomed the measures to hire more EU workers. Logistics UK called it a “huge step forward in solving the disruption to supply chains”. Elizabeth de Jong, policy director at Logistics UK, said, “We are so pleased the Government has listened to our calls and has made this bold decision to support the UK economy.”

But others said it will not be enough. Baroness Ruby McGregor-Smith, president of the British Chambers of Commerce, said a plan should have been in place from the outset of Brexit to manage the transition from a reliance on EU workers to a focus on the domestic workforce. “Instead, the supply of EU labour was turned off with no clear roadmap as to how this transition would be managed without disruption to services and supply chains.

“Now some action has been taken, but additional testing will take time, and the low number of visas offered is insufficient,” she continued. “Even if these short-term opportunities attract the maximum amount of people allowed under the scheme, it will not be enough to address the scale of the problem that has now developed in our supply chains. This announcement is the equivalent of throwing a thimble of water on a bonfire.” She said the Government should be prepared to “significantly expand” the number of visas issued as well as finding longer-term solutions. 

“Without further action, we now face the very real prospect of serious damage to our economic recovery, stifled growth as well as another less than happy Christmas for many businesses and their customers across the country.”