Boris Johnson says supply problems could continue until Christmas and admits to knowing about UK haulage problems for months
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On the opening day of the Tory Party conference in Manchester, the Prime Minister insisted the fuel crisis was “abating” despite continuing reports of long queues for petrol in some parts of the country.
However, he acknowledged the UK economy was facing “stresses and strains” as it moves away from the “broken model” which, he said, had been rejected by voters in the 2016 Brexit referendum.
But Mr Johnson insisted he would not solve the issues in the labour market, which have led to warnings of shortages on the shelves in the run-up to the festive season, by pulling “the big lever marked uncontrolled immigration” to allow in large numbers of foreign workers.
Asked on the BBC’s The Andrew Marr Show about a warning by Chancellor Rishi Sunak that shortages could continue to Christmas, Mr Johnson said: “Rishi is invariably right in everything he says.”
He then added hurriedly: “It depends how you interpret what he is saying.”
In comments made later on Sunday during a visit to a youth centre in east Manchester, Mr Johnson said he would keep “all options on the table” to fix the delivery difficulties being witnessed, but stressed industries would also have to step up.
He told broadcasters the haulage sector would need to invest in “better truck stops” to attract a more diverse workforce, including women lorry drivers.
Pressed on whether there could be more temporary visas issued to prevent empty supermarket shelves, the Conservative Party leader said: “We’ll take each step as it comes, we’re there to support industries that are having difficulties.
“But it is fundamentally up to them to work out the way ahead.
“In the end, those businesses, those industries, are the best solvers of their own supply chain issues – government can’t step in and fix every bit of the supply chain.
“But what we certainly will do is keep all options on the table.”
Back on Marr, Mr Johnson was also pressed on a warning given by the Road Haulage Association, which wrote to him in June saying a major crisis was building in the industry due to the shortage of HGV drivers.
The Prime Minister said: “We have known about shortages in road haulage long before then. They have been a chronic feature of the way the road haulage industry has worked.”
Mr Johnson said the problem at the forecourts – triggered by reports that a shortage of tanker drivers was affecting deliveries – is “fundamentally one of supply”.
He said the economy faces a “period of adjustment” and the way to get more HGV drivers was for the industry to ensure they are “decently paid”.
The Prime Minister said: “We have got to make sure people come on stream as fast as we practically can.
“When people voted for change in 2016, when they voted for change again in 2019 as they did, they voted for the end of a broken model of the UK economy that relied on low wages and low skills and chronic low productivity. We are moving away from that.
“The way forward for our country is not to just pull the big lever marked uncontrolled immigration and allow in huge numbers of people.”
Mr Johnson’s comments come as military drivers prepare to take to the roads for the first time on Monday in support of the operation to keeping filling stations supplied.
Around 100 trained drivers with an additional 100 support troops are due to be deployed over the coming week, despite repeated assurances by ministers the situation is “stabilising”.
The Petrol Retailers Association has welcomed the move – described by the Prime Minister as a “precaution” – but warned it would have a limited impact given the relatively small numbers involved.
The association urged ministers to ensure supplies are prioritised on those areas where the shortages are most acute – most notably London and the South East, which have continued to see long queues at the pumps.
In contrast, the situation in Scotland, the North of England and the Midlands is reported to be easing with supplies returning to normal.
Tory chairman Oliver Dowden meanwhile gave reassurances for those worried about supplies come the festive season, saying people would be able to get turkeys for Christmas.
He told Sky News’ Trevor Phillips on Sunday there were supply chain problems across the world due to lorry driver shortages, but issues with turkey production were being addressed.
“We will make sure that people have their turkeys for Christmas,” he said.
“I know that the environment secretary George Eustice, this is absolutely top of his list.”
Mr Dowden acknowledged “there are challenges with supply chains” across the economy.
“We are not unique in the UK in this,” he said.
“If you look across Poland, the US, other countries, there are shortages of drivers – that’s to do with a range of factors.”
Those included an ageing workforce and the lack of driving tests during the pandemic.
Environment minister Zac Goldsmith also said the ongoing petrol crisis was a “good lesson” in the need for the dependence on fossil fuels to end.
In an interview with The Independent, Lord Goldsmith said queues at petrol stations amid shortages should serve as a reminder of the need to accelerate the switch to electric vehicles.
He also dismissed fears the current difficulties could make it harder to achieve political and public backing for an agreement to tackle the climate emergency at the forthcoming COP26 summit in Glasgow next month.
Lord Goldsmith conceded the petrol shortages represented “a crisis” with serious implications for many businesses and people.