Boris Johnson has admitted only 127 people have applied for the UK’s temporary visa scheme designed to solve the nation’s HGV driver crisis.
The Prime Minister said 300 people are wanted immediately to drive oil tankers, but a further 4,700 HGV drivers are wanted by later on this month.
Speaking on BBC Breakfast this morning, he said: ‘The supply chain problem is caused very largely by the strength of the economic recovery.
‘What you will see is brilliant logistic experts in our supermarket chains, in our food processing industry, getting to grips with it, finding the staff that they need, we will help them in any way that we can. But the shortage is global.
‘What you can’t do is go back to the old, failed model where you mainline low-wage, low-skilled labour – very often very hard-working, brave, wonderful people – who come in, working in conditions that frankly are pretty tough and we shouldn’t be going back to that.’
That had led to a situation where there was not investment in the industry and ‘people had to urinate in bushes’ because of the lack of facilities for drivers, he said.
Appearing on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme afterwards, the PM was asked why he wouldn’t let business decide what they need, rather than offering a set number of visas.
He said that over the past 25 years – under EU immigration rules – businesses were able to ‘mainline low wage, low cost immigration for a very long time’.
Johnson added: ‘In some ways that worked well, the people who came are fantastic hardworking people who did a wonderful job.
‘But what that resulted in was the suppression, not just of pay, but also of conditions.’
Johnson said the ‘stresses and strains’ on supply chains in Britain were caused by ‘a giant waking up’.
Asked if he thought the situation was a crisis, he said: ‘No, I think that on the contrary, what you’re seeing with the UK economy and indeed the global economy, is very largely in the supply chains the stresses and strains that you’d expect from a giant waking up, and that’s what’s happening.’
He said the country was facing an ‘extremely interesting moment’ and that the shortages were a ‘sign of economic robustness, that the market is demanding labour in the way that it is’.
Johnson added: ‘I have talked often about immigration, I’ve always been in favour of people who have talent and industry coming to this country, I want to see that.’
As the PM kept trying to make points about how having a ‘low wage, low cost’ approach for too long which is putting off young people from becoming HGV drivers, host Nick Robinson tried to ask more questions.
He told Johnson: ‘Prime Minister, stop talking. We are going to have questions and answers, not where you merely talk, if you wouldn’t mind?’
A combination of factors related to the Covid-19 pandemic, Brexit and longer-running systemic problems in the haulage industry are said to be behind the country’s shortage.
While there is not a shortage of petrol at refineries, there are still not enough drivers to keep garages stocked in many parts of the country.
But the problem has been made even worse by panic buyers, leading to long queues at stations and even fighting on the forecourts.
Speaking on LBC this morning, Johnson said: ‘I sympathise very much with the frustrations of people who’ve been queueing for petrol, I really, really do.
‘I understand how infuriating it is when you can’t get petrol at the pumps, I really understand that.
‘But I must repeat, that this has been overwhelmingly a problem of demand and not supply. You know what I mean by that.
‘Actually, the tanker and lorry drivers have got more than the average week’s supply to the pumps for the last few days. I think even the Petrol Retailers Association have been saying that the situation has been improving markedly.’
Johnson was also asked what he thought about Insulate Britain, whose activists have been causing chaos by sitting down in the middle of major roads.
The Extinction Rebellion offshoot group is calling for homes across the UK to be properly insulated to help fight climate change.
But some members of the public were enraged and dragged activists away after they kept an ambulance stuck in traffic in London yesterday.
The Prime Minister said: ‘There are some people who call those individuals legitimate protesters.
‘They are not. I think they are irresponsible crusties who are basically trying to stop people going about their day’s work and doing considerable damage to the economy.
‘That is why we have taken the powers and why Priti Patel is doing the right thing to bring in powers so they can get six months or an unlimited fine.’
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