The public strongly supports the government relaxing immigration rules for European lorry drivers to abate the labour shortage that is causing empty supermarket shelves, a poll for PoliticsHome has found.
The independent survey, carried out by Redfield & Wilton Strategies, found that 47% of respondents supported the government relaxing rules for drivers coming from the European Union, which multiple industry bodies are calling for, while 21% opposed it.
Over half of respondents — 56% — said they supported adding lorry drivers to the UK's Shortage Occupation List, making it easier for employers to recruit staff from abroad, compared to who 11% opposed it.
The poll of 2,000 people was conducted between 18-19 August alongside growing pressure on ministers to temporarily relax immigration rules in response to the lorry driver shortage that is delaying products reaching supermarket shelves nationwide.
Persistent reports of empty supermarket shelves, and shortages at popular restaurants including McDonalds and Nando's, have left many worried about the ongoing availability of groceries. An overwhelming 83% of people polled said they had read or heard about the driver shortage.
This week the British Meat Processors Association (BMPA) became the latest trade group to sound the alarm, warning that it expects shortages of foods like pigs in blankets and gammon this Christmas due to delays in the supply chain.
“We can’t really see how it's not going to happen. We are already six weeks behind because producers just haven’t had the capacity," the group told PoliticsHome. "The British public simply won't have the products available in the volumes that they have come to expect."
They explained that work to prepare pigs in blankets for the busy festive period is "labour intensive" and usually begins in July. However, the strain on supply chains caused by the driver shortage has meant that the work has not yet started, they said.
McDonalds became the latest fast food outlet to confirm it had been impacted by the shortage on Tuesday, with a spokesperson saying it had run out of milkshakes. Earlier this month KFC said some items on its menu were not available, while Nandos was forced to close 50 restaurants due to running out of chicken.
A host of industry groups are urging the government to alleviate the problem in the short-term by making it easier for employers to hire drivers from the EU.
Logistics UK have called on the Home Office to grant 10,000 temporary visas to EU drivers, pointing to analysis of Office for National Statistics data showing that 14,000 left the UK in the year to June 2020, while just 600 have returned in the past year.
“The EU workers who left the UK in the year ending June 2020, ahead of Brexit, were critical to the supply chain’s resilience,” said the group's General Manager of Public Policy, Alex Veitch, “and we are now starting to see the impact that their departure has had on supplies to businesses, retailers, homes and schools."
He added: "The industry is working hard to recruit new drivers, with the implementation of new apprenticeships and other training schemes, and working with DVSA to speed up its testing regime, but these measures will take some time to produce new drivers.
"Our industry needs drivers now, and we are urging government to replicate its temporary visa scheme, introduced for agricultural workers, for logistics to keep trucks and vans moving in the short term.”
A perfect storm of the coronavirus pandemic and Brexit have worsened a long-standing shortage of lorry drivers in the UK, with industry figures putting the shortfall at 100,000.
A significant number of drivers retired or changed jobs during the pandemic, with many joining online delivery companies, while non-UK national drivers who left the country will struggle to return due to the government's post-Brexit immigration rules, industry leaders say.
Earlier in the summer the number of drivers isolating as a result of Covid contact also contributed to the issue.
The labour shortage has triggered a slowdown in supply chains, with social media recently awash with pictures of empty supermarket shelves.
However, the government has up to now been adamant that it will not use immigration to address the problem and are urging employers to hire British workers instead.
A government spokesperson said: “The British people repeatedly voted to end free movement and take back control of our immigration system and employers should invest in our domestic workforce instead of relying on labour from abroad.
"We recently announced a package of measures to help tackle the HGV driver shortage, including plans to streamline the process for new drivers to gain their HGV licence and to increase the number of tests able to be conducted.
"We have also temporarily relaxed drivers’ hours rules to allow HGV drivers to make slightly longer journeys, but these must only be used where necessary and must not compromise driver safety.”
Kerry McCarthy MP, Labour's Shadow Minister for Roads, said the poll showed "not only is the government out of step with business, it's also out of step with the public".
She said: "The driver shortage is causing serious damage to the economy, yet the government are failing on all fronts by not doing enough to make tests available for British drivers and refusing to put forward workable plans for more drivers to fill vacancies.
"People want urgent solutions to this crisis. The government must listen."