The government is working on a number of options to tackle the shortage of truck drivers, including luring former employees back to the market, amid warnings from the food industry that supply chains could break down in the run up to Christmas.
Small Business Minister Paul Scully said offering visas to overseas drivers would not solve the problem because shortages were being felt across Europe, and the government was looking to more domestic options instead.
Tesco told government officials last week that the shortage of truck drivers would lead to panic-buying in the run up to Christmas if action was not taken, media reports have said.
Supermarkets, farmers and other operators have called on the government to allow workers from abroad to return to British roads. The trucking industry says it needs another 90,000 drivers to meet demand after Brexit made it harder for European workers to drive in Britain and the pandemic prevented new workers from qualifying.
“There are hundreds of thousands of people in the country that have HGV licences, either full or partial, that are not working at the moment,” he said. “How we can encourage them back, how we can increase the number of tests to get more people through the system which has been delayed because of the pandemic.”
The National Farmers’ Union has also written to the prime minister asking him, as a matter of urgency, to introduce a new visa system to help tackle the “crippling labour shortages” across the supply chain.
“Images of empty supermarket shelves are becoming commonplace as labour shortages bite,” the letter said. “As we move towards Christmas, there is a substantial threat of food inflation directly impacting the poorest families.”
Scully said consumers should not panic buy products as the country is not heading back into a 1970s-style “winter of discontent” when its economy was brought to it knees by strikes and power cuts.
Asked by Times Radio if a winter of discontent with empty shelves, power cuts and rising living costs was looming, Scully said: “No. Look this isn’t a 1970s thing at all. I don’t recognise that.”
“We need to build resilience back into the economy in some of these areas… There is not need for people to go out and panic buy.”