Ministers have admitted that visa applications for HGV drivers and poultry workers invited to come to the UK to save Christmas are taking three weeks to process.
It came as a cabinet minister admitted that only around 20 applications for temporary visas from foreign lorry drivers have so far been processed during Britain’s supply chain crisis.
Many of those applying are not expected to arrive in the UK until mid-November, giving them only weeks to make an impact on the expected Christmas shortages resulting from Brexit and the Covid pandemic.
With growing fears that shops will run short of toys, turkeys and Christmas treats like pigs in blankets, the government this month announced an offer of time-limited visas for up to 5,000 HGV drivers and 5,500 poultry workers to ease supply chain pressures in the festive period.
Another 300 haulage drivers were encouraged to come to Britain immediately and allowed to stay until the end of March, to help ease separate problems with fuel shortages.
The minister said the government had received around 300 applications from foreign drivers, but just over 20 hauliers have been processed and are now “on the roads”.
Mr Dowden told LBC Radio: “We have 300 who have applied for these visas. I believe the number is just over 20 who have actually received them and are on the road. I expect this number to increase over time.”
Taken aback, LBC host Nick Ferrari said the rate of success in attracting foreign drivers was “hopeless”, adding: “You’d get booted out of school for that, minister.”
Mr Dowden said ministers were “not in the business of setting arbitrary targets” as he defended the government’s reluctance to bring in more foreign drivers to meet the drastic shortfall.
Asked how far the government will have got to addressing the shortage of 100,000 HGV drivers by Christmas, he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “What I can assure you is that the government is straining every sinew and the government is committed to making sure we increase HGV driver capacity through a whole range of different measures.”
Meanwhile, immigration minister Kevin Foster wrote to MPs to confirm that the offer of visas for 5,000 HGV drivers and 5,500 poultry workers only went into operation on Monday this week, with truckers able to work in the UK until February and meat-processors told to leave by the end of the year.
He said potential recruits will need to obtain sponsorship from an employer before applying for a visa, adding: “Applications will be processed in 15 working days – as this is the public service standard.”
Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesperson Alistair Carmichael told The Independent: “It is shocking that while supermarket shelves are going empty and our ports are gridlocked, visa applications are still taking three weeks or more to be processed.
“It means some workers will only be allowed in the country for as little as two months by the time their application has been approved. It’s little wonder so few people are taking up the offer to work here under the Conservatives’ botched visa scheme.
Toyshop owners have warned consumers to “buy now” to avoid Christmas disappointment with fears ongoing supply chain problems will result in higher prices and empty shelves.
Shipping giant Maersk has said it is diverting vessels away from UK ports because of a build-up of cargo.
Asked about potential Christmas shortages, Mr Dowden said: “The situation is improving, I’m confident that people will be able to get their toys for Christmas.
Mr Dowden also defended Boris Johnson’s decision to take a holiday in a Spanish villa this week while the UK faces energy shortages and problems recruiting drivers.
“I’ve worked closely with three prime ministers and I can assure you that there’s no such thing as a holiday for a prime minister,” he told Good Morning Britain.
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