1st October 2021
In an effort to tackle the ever-increasing supply chain issues leaving supermarket shelves empty and petrol station pumps dry (exacerbated by the current panic buying of fuel), on 25 September 2021 the government backtracked on a persistent refusal to allow “unskilled” labour into the country and announced a temporary visa scheme for overseas HGV drivers and poultry workers to work in the UK for three months, up until Christmas Eve. The situation is progressing at pace, and this article considers what we know as at 4 October 2021.
The UK’s points based immigration system, which only permits highly skilled workers to come to the UK for work, was extended to European nationals from 1 January 2021. Since this date, the ability of European nationals to come to the UK to take up any employment without restriction has ended and all non-UK (or Irish) nationals without alternative immigration permissions have required a work visa. However, jobs such as driving HGVs and working in areas of food production are not deemed sufficiently skilled to be eligible for such visas. A combination of factors, including European workers in these sectors returning home as a result of Brexit and the Covid-19 pandemic, has led to acute shortages of workers and the much publicised knock-on impact on food and fuel supply chains, amongst many others.
The temporary visa scheme, which is intended to provide short-term relief to the haulage industry’s supply issues, is part of a package of more long-term measures announced by the government to address the urgent shortage of HGV drivers in the UK, with estimates of a shortfall of 100,000 qualified drivers.
While the official information released by the government on the scheme is still lacking in substantive detail, initial announcements indicated that at least 5,000 visas would be made available to HGV drivers and a further 5,500 visas for poultry workers for the short period between October to 24 December 2021 only. The government also stated that the scheme would open for applications this month and that they are preparing to process the applications in a “timely manner”.
In a sign of just how quickly the situation is moving, on 2 October the government extended the concession for the fuel sector, which has seen the most public fall-out of the driver shortages, by announcing that 300 fuel drivers will be able to arrive in the UK immediately (subject to immigration checks, and endorsement from BEIS) and stay to work until the end of March 2022. Further, they announced that the remaining 4,700 food haulage drivers will arrive from late October and leave by the end of February 2022, and that the 5,500 poultry workers will leave by 31 December 2021, not by Christmas Eve as per the initial proposals. Therefore, while initially the scheme seemed to be aimed solely at ensuring there is enough food in the supermarkets at Christmas and that the immediate fuel crisis is alleviated, rather than addressing wider supply pressures on a longer-term basis, the fact that it has been extended into early next year suggests a shift in emphasis.
Further, while the initial announcements referred to the temporary visa scheme being introduced to provide relief to the “haulage industry”, which left room for questions as to whether it was aimed only at food and fuel drivers or hauliers in general, the latest announcement is clear that the intended recipients are food and fuel haulage drivers only.
The government has confirmed that the poultry worker visas will be delivered under the Temporary Worker route. The Seasonal Worker sub-category of the Temporary Worker route has traditionally been the route which has allowed overseas workers to come to the UK for farm work (e.g. fruit picking), and is likely to also be the route that will facilitate the 4,700 HGV driver visas aside from the 300 fuel drivers who will be permitted immediate entry (this has unofficially been confirmed by the Home Office as the route for HGV drivers to other sources, but no official announcement has been made to this effect at the time of writing).
Official confirmation setting out the exact process is awaited from the government, however it is clear that any proposed scheme will need to ensure that the application process is not unduly burdensome on applicants in order to get the relevant workers into the UK as efficiently as possible and have a tangible effect on the acute supply chain issues currently being faced. For example, the existing Seasonal Worker category requires evidence that the individual can financially maintain themselves while in the UK, and it remains to be seen whether this hurdle will apply.
As it stands, the Seasonal Worker route permits employers in the edible horticulture sector to source workers for up to six months via an approved scheme operator. Clearly, if the recruitment of the HGV drivers is to take place via the Seasonal Worker route, changes to the rules will need to be made urgently to facilitate the movement of the drivers under the scheme.
It is also important to note that individual employers and organisations are not eligible for a sponsor licence on this particular route. Only approved scheme operators are able to sponsor and recruit the relevant workers. As such, any business that wants to take advantage of the visa scheme would need to source the HGV drivers from an approved scheme operator that holds the correct licence.
The current process involves the approved scheme operator issuing a Certificate of Sponsorship (CoS) to the prospective worker and the worker using the CoS to apply for their visa. Once the application has been submitted and biometric information provided, the visa is normally issued within 15 working days. However, it remains to be seen how this timeframe is adapted in light of the commitment to move quickly to get the workers into the country.
Unsurprisingly, commentary from businesses and trade bodies for hauliers suggests that the number of visas being offered to HGV drivers is woefully inadequate, potentially foreshadowing the demand for visas significantly outstripping the supply. As such, businesses will need to be prepared for the very real possibility of not being able to source any HGV drivers via this route (even if they are deemed to fall within the appropriate sector) due to the limited quota. Additionally, media reports suggest that European workers, who are likely to be the intended recipients of the majority of the temporary visas, may be far from willing to come to the UK’s rescue in its hour of need given the impact Brexit has had on their ability to travel, live and work here unrestricted.
Ultimately, the temporary visa scheme is designed to provide short-term relief to the current supply chain and labour shortage issues and the government has stressed that they want to see employers make long term investments in the UK domestic workforce, instead of relying on overseas labour, to build a high-wage, high-skill economy. However, although The BBC  has reported that government sources have confirmed similar temporary visa schemes will not be introduced for other sectors facing staff shortages, despite increasing calls from voices in hospitality, healthcare and retail amongst others, reports in The Times state that ministers are already discussing plans to “ease visa restrictions to allow up to 1,000 foreign butchers into the country”. This suggests the repeated insistence by the government that the UK domestic workforce should be the sole source of “unskilled” labour is further weakening.
The government’s stance of wanting to shift the focus from relying on overseas “low skilled” labour may be the reason why the scheme does not appear to be fit for purpose; especially taking into account the low number of visas in comparison to the anticipated high demand, the short window for applications to be submitted and processed, and workers to travel to the UK. However, whether further pressures on supply chains, and the resulting public discontent, will lead to additional concessions and an extension to other industries outside fuel and food haulage remains to be seen.
What is clear however, is that the need to bring foreign labour into the UK workforce is only likely to increase for many sectors, and businesses need to ensure they have the necessary permissions in place to bring those workers into the country in good time.
The Walker Morris Business Immigration Team is closely monitoring and advising clients on the temporary visa scheme, and on taking the preparatory steps required to recruit migrant workers more generally. Please contact the head of Business Immigration, Shabana Muneer, (on 07944091497 or firstname.lastname@example.org) to discuss any queries on how your business may be impacted by these issues.