Grant Shapps, the UK transport secretary, yesterday defended the introduction of a temporary visa scheme that will see 5,000 HGV drivers and 5,500 poultry workers brought in on three-month contracts to address supermarket shortages and problems with fuel deliveries.
But Martin Reed, director for Scotland and Northern Ireland at the Road Haulage Association (RHA), said the visa scheme was just “one of a number of levers that need to be pulled” in order to tackle the crisis.
Industry body Scottish Food & Drink also warned that the number of visas won’t “cut it,” particularly around “chronic” staff shortages in food production.
Mr Shapps has said that the queues and closures at fuel stations around the country were a "manufactured situation" created by the RHA leaking comments from BP bosses about supply concerns. However, the RHA dismissed his claims as being “entirely without foundation."
Mr Shapps also expressed confidence that the temporary via scheme would ease the "100 to 200" shortfall of fuel tanker drivers, and predicted the pump queues would start to "resolve" themselves partly due to the difficulty in stockpiling petrol.
He added that ministers were also planning to train 4,000 more lorry drivers, with the Army drafted in to provide extra HGV driving tests to reduce the "bottleneck" caused by the pandemic shutdown.
However, Mr Reed cautioned: “The numbers that they are talking about will not make a massive dent in the issues that we have, in terms of shortages.
“At the end of the day, we need a number of different factors and government interventions to bring new blood into the industry. At the minute, the short-term issue is getting existing orders to their place of delivery.
“One of the things we need to do is look at the people who’ve left the industry and try and get them to come back. The main issue is drivers’ conditions, not just pay, but the treatment of drivers - many distribution centres deny them access to washing and toilet facilities.”
The RHA estimates that the shortage of HGV drivers across the UK stands at more than 100,000. Even before the pandemic, it put the number at around 60,000.
Marco Digioia, secretary general of the European Road Hauliers Association, which represents more than two-thirds of trucking companies across the EU, said he did not think the visa scheme would encourage drivers to flock back to Britain.
"Until the UK offers the same pay and working conditions as drivers have in the EU then many will stay away," he said.
Mr Shapps said yesterday there was "plenty of fuel" in the UK, having checked with six refineries and 47 storage centres throughout the country.
There were only isolated reports of queuing by motorists in Scotland yesterday, although two petrol stations in Aberdeen ran out of both petrol and diesel.
Brian Madderson, chair of the Petrol Retailers Association, which represents around two thirds of forecourts across the UK, said around “60 to 65 per cent” of its members' forecourts had run dry.
While the focus on the supply chain shortages has been on Christmas goods and fuel, the National Farmers Union Scotland stressed that the impact was being widely felt among its membership.
Scott Walker, the union’s chief executive, said there were “big big problems across the whole farming sector,” with particularly acute shortages in the fruit and vegetable sector
He said: “We’ve had reports this year that just in Fife that two and a half million heads of broccoli couldn’t be picked, and one and a half million heads of cauliflower were left to rot. We think there’s something like a 20 per cent labour shortage across fruit and veg in general.”
Mr Walker said that the prolonged labour shortfall would impact on consumer choice, adding: “If you go into a retailer, you might still be able to get chicken or beef, but you might not get it in the same choice of sizes or variety that you did in the past.
“This isn’t just about Christmas and it isn’t just about making sure there are enough turkeys,” he said. “There’s an awful lot more that needs to be done to really solve the food crisis that we are facing.”
James Withers, CEO of iScottish Food & Drink, accused the UK government of trying to “fix bad headlines” instead of solving the “actual problem.”
He hit out: “We have been calling for emergency visas for weeks to avoid the collapse of some food supply chains.
“I seriously doubt that 10,000 three month visas are going to cut it. It may help the driver situation a little, but it won’t address the chronic staff shortage in food production.
“At this stage, my instinct is that this is too little, too late to make a real difference to the Christmas trade.”
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer intimated that he would significantly expand the rollout of temporary visas to ensure every vacancy in the haulage industry is filled.
Asked on BBC One’s Andrew Marr Show whether he would support bringing in 100,000 foreign drivers to match the shortage, Sir Keir said: "We are going to have to do that. We have to issue enough visas to cover the number of drivers that we need."
Angus Robertson, the Scottish external affairs secretary, warned that the immigration system was “not meeting” the needs of the Scottish economy.
He has written to home secretary Priti Patel calling on the UK government to “urgently address” the challenges, and introduce a 24 month temporary workers visa.
Mr Robertson also said that the shortage occupation list used for immigration must be reviewed, arguing that Scottish ministers should be given a formal role in determining what categories of workers are included.