The 5,000 EU HGV drivers set to be granted a temporary visa in order to save Christmas are unlikely to hit UK roads until the second week of November at the earliest.
A mixture of the time it takes for government to officially enact the scheme and then hauliers to recruit and on-board the drivers means they are likely to work in the UK for a maximum of seven weeks, rather than the three months mooted by PM Boris Johnson last week.
The Statutory Instrument to allow the visas is not due to be laid in parliament until 15 October, following the Conservative party conference.
At that point businesses can approach one of four management firms selected by government to process visa applications. This is likely to take up to two weeks. After which it is likely to take at least another week for drivers to arrive in the UK and be fully on-boarded with their new employer.
“To call it a three-month scheme is disingenuous,” said an MD at one major UK haulier.
He said the business had identified a number of ex-employees living in the EU that it was currently approaching. It is hoped between 200 and 500 EU drivers will join the company for the limited period.
The government has previously stated that 5,000 HGV driver visas and the same number for poultry workers would only be valid until Christmas Eve. The delay in getting the workers in will only add to the suggestion from many industry sources, who have said the government’s plan did not include enough temporary visas and that they should be for at least one year.
Many have also said that the short window would also make it difficult to convince EU workers to come to the UK even with the promise of high wages.
The food and drink industry is expecting to fork out up to 20% more for an EU HGV driver compared to the average UK trucker’s wage.
Businesses utilising the visa scheme will also be expected to provide return travel to the UK, accommodation and medical bills on top of the inflated hourly rate.
“If we can’t offer the money they just won’t come over for such a short period of time,” said the haulage MD.
“Wages in Europe have risen sharply in recent months just like they have here. We have looked at this and thought ‘is it worth it’ but we have an obligation to our customers to deliver Christmas and this is what we will do. But we expect to break even based on these figures.”
“We will expect the uplift to be passed right down the supply chain and into consumers’ pockets.”
Meanwhile, there is growing unrest among smaller food and drink businesses that have not been privy to government briefings and are not clear on how to access this labour pool.
“The supermarkets have had a head start on this,” said an industry insider.
“This scheme is aimed at the bigger players, the smaller operators couldn’t get into gear in time. Government is refusing to publish guidance on how to go about hiring from outside the UK. If driver agencies end up taking on temporary EU workers we might have a shot at hiring them then but we’ll pay through the nose.”
A government spokeswoman said: ”We’ve taken immediate action to increase the supply of HGV drivers, streamlining the testing process, enabling fuel companies to work together and introducing short term visas. This is a global problem and we have been working closely with industry for months to understand how we can boost recruitment. However we also want to see long-term solutions delivered by employers through improved testing and hiring, with better pay and working.”