People who says Brexit to blame ‘are wrong’, says transport secretary Grant Shapps
The cabinet minister insisted that cynics were “wrong” to blame Brexit for the drastic shortage of heavy goods vehicle (HGV) drivers causing empty supermarket shelves and the closure of petrol stations.
“I’ve seen people point to Brexit as if it is the culprit here. In fact, they are wrong,” Mr Shapps told Sky News on Friday, after BP closed dozens of stations hit by fuel shortages.
“Not only are there very large and even larger [driver] 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.”
The minister added: “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.”
Logistics groups and food industry bodies have pleaded with the government to create a temporary visa scheme – or add HGV drivers to its skills shortage jobs list – to allow EU workers to help fill the shortfall.
But Mr Shapps insisted the coronavirus pandemic was the “principal cause” of the driver shortage and claimed it was a “global” problem.
Put to him on Sky News that it was “disingenuous” to suggest Covid was the reason for the lack of drivers, the transport secretary said: “Covid is the main reason. It is a global problem and Europe is hit particularly bad.”
Mr Shapps said motorists should “carry on as normal” after the lorry driver shortage hit fuel deliveries at dozens of BP petrol stations and a small number of Esso forecourts.
Saying he would “move heaven and earth” to keep goods moving, the transport secretary claimed the shortage of lorry drivers should “smooth out fairly quickly” because of the increase in driving tests.
He also suggested foreign workers had helped create “systemic” problems within the sector – saying “salaries have been suppressed over many years by people coming in [from overseas] and driving and being prepared to do that at lower wages”.
Mr Shapps told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “What we do know is that there are a lot of people who have their HGV licences but many of which will have lapsed to come out of the market, often because there has been cheaper European labour. We want to get those people back in.”
The Road Haulage Association (RHA) has said that simply increasing the amount of lorry driving tests available would not be enough to fix the crisis – calling on the government to change visa rules to allow more overseas drivers to work in the UK.
The RHA’s Rod McKenzie said that the industry had lost 20,000 European drivers because to Brexit, on top of historic shortfalls in the workforce.
Several of the UK’s largest businesses and industry bodies have also requested that the government relax visa requirements to help ease the labour shortfall. BP is understood to have asked the government for similar support on a temporary basis.