Ministers to hold urgent talks on driver shortage as AA urges motorists not to take more fuel than normal

Ministers will meet this afternoon for urgent talks on how to address the current shortage of lorry drivers, after the transport secretary told Sky News that motorists should “carry on as normal” when it comes to buying fuel.

Sky’s political correspondent Tamara Cohen said ministers were split on whether or not to offer temporary visas to try and tackle the shortage.

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Image: Queues at a Sainsbury’s petrol station in Colton, Leeds

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Britain needs 150,000 HGV drivers

“I understand solution could involve something similar to Seasonal Workers Scheme to avert immediate pressure,” she said.

The developments come as BP said on Friday afternoon that between 50 and 100 stations are affected by the loss of at least one grade of fuel, with around 20 of its 1,200 sites currently closed through loss of delivery supply.


The issue has been blamed on the nationwide lack of HGV drivers – while rival Esso said a few of its sites were affected too.

Tesco said two of the 500 petrol stations it operates were currently affected, describing the impact as minimal and ensuring that supply is replenished whenever this happens.

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Sainsbury’s, Asda and Morrisons said they were not affected. Shell was also understood not to be affected.

The AA has said that most of the UK’s forecourts are working as they should, with president Edmund King saying: “There is no shortage of fuel and thousands of forecourts are operating normally with just a few suffering temporary supply chain problems.

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Motorists queue at petrol stations

“Fridays and the weekend always tend to be busier on forecourts as drivers either combine filling up with shopping runs, prepare for weekend trips or refuel for the start of the new working week.

“Drivers should not fill up outside their normal routines because, even if the occasional petrol station is temporarily closed, others just down the road will be open.”

It is the latest in a series of supply chain issues being grappled with by ministers – after the separate issue of surging gas prices created a crisis in the energy sector and knock-on damage to carbon dioxide production, which has threatened to disrupt food processing.

The shortage of drivers – estimated at more than 100,000 by one industry body has been blamed on a confluence of issues including non-UK workers affected by Brexit, pandemic delays holding up HGV tests, and drivers being caught up in the “pingdemic” of COVID alerts earlier this year.

Speaking to Kay Burley, Grant Shapps said the shortage of drivers should “smooth out fairly quickly” as more HGV driving tests have been made available.

“The problem is not new,” the transport secretary insisted, adding: “There has been a lack of drivers for many months through this pandemic because during the lockdown drivers couldn’t be passed through their lorry HGV tests, and that is what has led to this problem.

“But many more tests are being made available now, so we should see it smooth out fairly quickly.”

Analysis by Tamara Cohen, political correspondent

Boris Johnson’s cabinet is split on how to resolve the increasingly acute lorry driver shortage without compromising its stance on immigration.

Some ministers are backing escalating industry demands to issue short-term visas for overseas drivers, to fill some of the 100,000 HGV driver vacancies.

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps this morning reiterated that the government does not want the haulage industry to be reliant on cheap, foreign labour as it has “for too long”.

Business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng has also recently slapped down demands for short-term visas for the struggling food and retail sectors – telling business leaders in a letter last month that the government would prioritise giving British workers decent employment opportunities.

But front page headlines about petrol stations “running on empty” and Christmas turkeys under threat do focus minds.

Environment Secretary George Eustice has said he believes there is real concern about getting food onto supermarket shelves and is backing visas for lorry drivers and the meat processing industry. Newly-installed Cabinet Office minister Steve Barclay is supportive.

Key cabinet ministers – potentially including the home secretary – will meet this afternoon, virtually I understand, to hammer out a solution. There is fierce Home Office opposition to putting truck drivers on the Shortage Occupation List.

I’m told a possible avenue is for a version of the Seasonal Workers Scheme – which allows agricultural workers to come to the UK for six months – might be a compromise plan.

However, Rod McKenzie from the Road Haulage Association warned: “There’s no early end in sight to this.

“We’ll probably be having to live with the trucker shortage for at least another year or so, even if the government tackles the issue urgently.”

Asked how many forecourts were affected on Friday morning, Mr Shapps replied: “I’m afraid I don’t have the answer to that at 7am in the morning.

“What I can tell you is yesterday, as of last night, five petrol stations on the BP network of 1,200 to 1,300 were affected.

“I’m meeting this morning with Tesco and I’m sure they’ll give me the update for themselves. None of the other retailers said that they had any closures.”

One demand from the industry has been for the government to introduce short-term visas to bring drivers over from the continent to address the shortage.

Asked if ministers would consider this, the transport secretary said he would “look at everything” and “move heaven and earth” to address the issue.

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HGV driver shortage ‘a cocktail of chaos’

Mr Shapps insisted throughout his Sky News interview that the COVID-19 pandemic was the “principle cause” of the driver shortage, something he described as a “global problem”.

Put to him by Burley that it was “disingenuous” to suggest COVID was the only reason for the lack of drivers, he said: “COVID is the main reason. It is a global problem and Europe is hit particularly bad.”

And the transport secretary added: “I’ve seen people point to Brexit as if it’s the culprit here. In fact, they’re wrong.

“Not only are there very large and even larger shortages in other EU countries like Poland and Germany, which clearly can’t be to do with Brexit, but actually because of Brexit I’ve been able to change the law and alter the way our driving tests operate in a way I could not have done if we were still part of the EU.

“So, Brexit actually has provided part of the solution of giving more slots available for HGV tests and there are a lot more – twice as many – tests available now than before the pandemic, a large proportion of those we’ve only been able to do because we are no longer in the EU.”

A survey in July of 615 drivers by the RHA found that they thought Brexit was the second most important factor behind the driver shortage, with drivers retiring the number one issue identified.

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The latest ONS Labour Force Survey found that 14,000 EU lorry drivers left the UK in the year to June 2020.

Labour Party chair Anneliese Dodds told Sky News that the government’s handling of Brexit was one of the reasons behind the shortage of HGV drivers.

“There are shortages of HGV drivers in other countries,” she acknowledged.

“I have to say, however, that there have been big failures in planning for this situation and the additional red tape that has been created, which was not inevitable, it was not an inevitable result of Brexit in many cases, but that hasn’t been tackled by government.”

Meanwhile, Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro has claimed that Boris Johnson asked him for an “emergency” agreement to supply a food product that is lacking in Britain during their talks in New York earlier this week.

Mr Bolsonaro did not name the product, but said he had passed on the prime minister’s request to his agriculture minister.

But the British Embassy in Brazil disputed the president’s account, saying that was not its recollection of the facts of the meeting.