The large queues and fuel disruption seen over the last week followed a warning made by an oil firm that it would have to temporarily close a handful of petrol stations because of a lack of HGV drivers. This follows similar warnings made by those in the food supply chain, cautioning that a lack of HGV drivers may cause disruption to supply in the run up to Christmas.
The Government acknowledges that there is a shortage of HGV drivers. Whilst it has previously focused on encouraging existing licence holders within the UK to return to work and speeding up the testing process, this week the Government announced that HGV drivers and poultry workers will be eligible for temporary work visas from next month.
The Government has announced today that 300 Seasonal Worker visas for fuel drivers will be available as a priority in the next fortnight with 4,700 Seasonal Worker visas for drivers in the food haulage sector and a further 5,500 Seasonal Worker visas for poultry workers to follow by the end of October 2021.
The specific details for the fuel drivers were published on Saturday 2 October and they confirm that until 15 October there will be an exception to allow people to enter the UK outside the normal UK immigration rules if they can meet all the following criteria:
This temporary work visa will last until 31 March 2022 at which point it will expire automatically.
We are still awaiting further details about the food haulage drivers and poultry workers but it is anticipated that the process will be in place for individuals to come to the UK on those visas from late October. Somewhat bizarrely the expiry dates for the visas also varies. They will last until 31 December 2021 for poultry workers and 28 February 2022 for food haulage drivers.
The Government has confirmed that these visas will be issued under the existing Seasonal Worker Route, which is an extended pilot scheme. This is a specific type of visa under the Temporary Worker route. It is usually limited to certain agricultural workers working in food production, for example for farm workers engaged to pick fruit.
Whilst the Government has announced this extension in response to the petrol pump crisis, the further details recently published make it clear that the majority of the visas will actually be issued for the wider food haulage and poultry farm industries and therefore these temporary concessions are actually designed to look ahead to ensuring food is available in the shops for the Christmas season and early 2022.
Seasonal Worker Visas are usually valid for 6 months. However, the Government has been clear that this extension will be for a shorter stay, the visas expiring on 31 December 2021, 28 February 2022 and 31 March 2022 regardless of when they are issued. This could give a maximum stay of less than 3 months for those issued visas in October.
Although under the Seasonal Worker Route there is a 14 day grace period for the worker to leave the UK once their work visa expires, so these workers could remain in the UK for a further two weeks before returning home.
An important feature of the Seasonal Worker Visa which many employers will not be aware of is that employers cannot sponsor these visas directly. Visas can only be sponsored by a handful of approved agencies, also known as approved scheme operators.
Individual employers therefore cannot apply directly for these visas, even if they are already a licensed sponsor on other routes.
It will be for the approved agencies to sponsor and recruit HGV drivers. Once recruited, the agency will issue individual workers with a certificate of sponsorship, which they can then use to apply for an individual visa. Once that visa is obtained, they can then work in an approved role for an employer in the UK.
Whilst this visa has typically included tractor drivers and other machinery and equipment operators, it has not previously been used for HGV drivers. Given the extremely short timeframes and the fact that full details are yet to be announced, the approved scheme operators are therefore likely to struggle to adapt to recruit for this speciality.
Although this has been published as a concession, these limitations mean the process for obtaining a visa will be unattractive to many employees, particularly given the short duration of the visa.
Although the new Points Based Immigration System was introduced less than a year ago, this announcement follows several other changes to the immigration routes, including the new route for Graduates that opened in July. In 2022 two further routes are due to be introduced: High Potential, for those that have graduated from a top global university and Business Mobility, which will incorporate current intra-company workers and include new provisions for secondments between overseas and UK businesses.
The Government also appears to be considering whether an exception for butchers should be made, to assist with the current difficulties in the UK with slaughtering animals.
The difficulty with the Points Based Immigration System is that it is limited to set skill and salary thresholds and therefore there is no “low-skilled” route. This shuts out many manual roles which rely on specialised training and experience, however, traditionally have required fewer qualifications. The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated that many of these “low-skilled” roles are clearly key worker roles, which are essential to the day to day operation of the country.
Several other sectors are calling for sector specific routes to be introduced, including social care, vets and hospitality, to deal with recruitment issues. If these issues continue a more wide-reaching overhaul of the Points Based System is likely to be requested by businesses.
If you have any visa or other immigration related queries please contact a member of our Immigration team. Visit our Business Immigration page for more information on the immigration services we can offer employers.