Johnson hits out at ‘cheap foreign drivers’ as London fuel shortages worsen

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Johnson hits out at ‘cheap foreign drivers’ as London fuel shortages worsen
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Boris Johnson warned the road haulage industry it cannot expect to rely on cheap immigrant labour in the future - as fuel shortages got worse in London and the south east.

Speaking on the eve of the Conservative Party conference in Manchester, the Prime Minister insisted the situation on forecourts was “stabilising” after a week of filling stations running dry due to panic buying.

Opportunistic petrol stations are charging nearly £3 a litre for fuel amid warnings the costs could rise even further next week.

Boris Johnson at Leeds General Infirmary on Saturday (PA)
Boris Johnson at Leeds General Infirmary on Saturday (PA)

His comments came after the Government announced it was extending 5,000 temporary visas being offered to foreign lorry drivers amid warnings of shortages on the shelves in the run-up to Christmas.

They include 300 bespoke visas for tanker drivers who will be able to come into the UK “immediately” amid claims the fuel crisis is getting worse in some parts of the country.

On a visit to Leeds General Infirmary, Mr Johnson said: “Of course we keep everything under review but what we don’t want to do is go back to a situation in which we basically allowed the road haulage industry to be sustained with a lot of low-wage immigration that meant that wages didn’t go up and the quality of the job didn’t go up.

Boris Johnson and Sajid Javid speak with staff as they view an MRI scanner during a visit to Leeds General Infirmary (PA)
Boris Johnson and Sajid Javid speak with staff as they view an MRI scanner during a visit to Leeds General Infirmary (PA)

“The weird thing is now, that people don’t want to go into the road haulage industry, don’t want to be lorry drivers, precisely because you have that mass immigration approach that held wages down, that held the quality of the job down.”

He added: “I think what the UK shouldn’t be doing is to continue to try to be a low-wage, low-skills, low-productivity economy.

“People don’t want that. They want us to be a well-paid, well-skilled, highly productive economy and that’s where we’re going.”

Mr Johnson said some 200 troops, including 100 military drivers, were being deployed from Monday to support the supply effort as it was important to take “all possible precautions”.

They have been training at haulier sites and will start deliveries to help relieve the situation at petrol stations.

But Brian Madderson, chairman of the Petrol Retailers Association, said fuel shortages remains a “really big problem” in the South East, despite ministers’ assurances.

He told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme: “In London and the South East and possibly parts of eastern England, if anything it had got worse.”

Mr Madderson welcomed the announcement that military drivers are to be deployed from Monday, but he warned it will only have a limited impact.

“This isn’t going to be the major panacea,” he said. “It’s a large help but in terms of the volume, they are not going to be able to carry that much.

A motorist fills up in Baker Street (AFP via Getty Images)
A motorist fills up in Baker Street (AFP via Getty Images)

“We do need a prioritisation of deliveries to filling stations – particularly the independent ones which are the neighbourhood retail sites – in London and the South East starting immediately.”

He said rising world oil prices mean motorists should expect higher prices at the pumps when filling stations are resupplied.

“Expect anything from 1, 2 or even 3p a litre increases at the pump. This is not profiteering. This is genuine wholesale price increases caused by global factors.”

In a bid to ease the crisis almost 200 military personnel, including 100 drivers, will be deployed next week.

The Government has also announced that a temporary visa scheme for nearly 5,000 foreign food haulage drivers, which was due to expire on December 24, will be extended to the end of February, following criticism of its attractiveness to drivers.

It comes as opposition parties raised the prospect of a parliamentary recall to address wider labour shortages and supply chain disruption.

Sir Keir Starmer said the temporary visa scheme would not be up and running “for weeks”, and added that the Prime Minister should, if necessary, recall Parliament to rush through legislation to ensure the shelves remain stocked in the run-up to Christmas.

Motorists queue for fuel at a petrol station in central London (AFP via Getty Images)
Motorists queue for fuel at a petrol station in central London (AFP via Getty Images)

The SNP’s Westminster leader Ian Blackford said Boris Johnson “must immediately recall Parliament and convene cross-party talks to set out steps to effectively tackle the Brexit crisis”.

He added: “The severe labour shortages, soaring costs, empty supermarket shelves, ongoing fuel crisis and trading barriers are all inflicting serious and lasting harm.”

In an announcement on Friday evening, the Government said 300 fuel tanker drivers would be able to come to the UK from overseas “immediately” under a bespoke temporary visa which will last until March.

Some 4,700 other visas intended for foreign food haulage drivers will be extended beyond the initially announced three months and will last from late October to the end of February.

A total of 5,500 poultry workers will also be allowed in to help keep supermarket shelves stocked with turkeys before Christmas.

The Government has said these workers, who can arrive from late October, will be able to stay up to December 31 under the temporary visa scheme.

But the Government added the visas will not be a long-term solution and it wants employers to invest in the domestic workforce instead of relying on overseas labour.

It said it is also working with the industry to find long-term solutions to the shortage of HGV drivers and to encourage more people to enter the logistics sector by improving pay and conditions.

Health Secretary Sajid Javid said the fuel situation is “stabilising” in most parts of the country and the military is being deployed as a “precaution”.

He told Sky News on Saturday morning: “I think it is right that as a precaution that the Government has asked the military to help. I think that is the right measure to take to make sure that people have all the confidence that they need.

“I think that will further stabilise the situation and give more confidence.”

The Government has said there is no national fuel shortage, but Chancellor Rishi Sunak told the Daily Mail there is global disruption to supply chains in other industries.

He told the paper: “These shortages are very real. We’re seeing real disruptions in supply chains in different sectors, not just here but around the world.

“We are determined to do what we can to try to mitigate as much of this as we can.

“As you can imagine there’s an enormous amount of focus on this from the Government because we know how important this is. My kids will be very upset with me if there isn’t a proper Christmas.”

The Financial Times reported millions of British Christmas dinners will be saved by turkeys being imported, after the chief executive of the British Poultry Council, Richard Griffiths, told the paper the country’s big producers had reduced consumption by about a fifth this year because Brexit had cut off their supply of cheap labour.

A turkey farmer told the paper imported birds are likely to come from France and Poland.

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