Only around 20 applications for temporary visas from foreign lorry drivers have been processed during Britain’s supply chain crisis, a senior government figure has revealed.
The minister said the government had received around 300 applications from foreign drivers, but just over 20 hauliers have been processed and are now “on the roads”.
Dowden told LBC Radio: “We have 300 who have applied for these visas. I believe the number is just over 20 who have actually received them and are on the road. I expect this number to increase over time.”
Taken aback, LBC host Nick Ferrari said the rate of success in attracting foreign drivers was “hopeless”, adding: “You’d get booted out of school for that, minister.”
Dowden said ministers were “not in the business of setting arbitrary targets” as he defended the government’s reluctance to bring in more foreign drivers to meet the drastic shortfall.
Asked how far the government will have got to addressing the shortage of 100,000 HGV drivers by Christmas, he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “We’re not in the business of setting arbitrary targets.”
The Tory chair added: “What I can assure you is that the government is straining every sinew and the government is committed to making sure we increase HGV driver capacity through a whole range of different measures.”
It comes as toy shop owners has warned consumers to “buy now” to avoid Christmas disappointment amid fears ongoing supply chain problems will result in higher prices and empty shelves.
Shipping giant Maersk has said it is diverting vessels away from UK ports because of a build-up of cargo, citing the shortage of HGV driver shortages.
Asked about potential Christmas shortages, Dowden said: “The situation is improving, I’m confident that people will be able to get their toys for Christmas.
“Some buy people buy very early for Christmas, my wife is quite an early Christmas buyer, others buy later. I would say just buy as you do normally.”
The government announced earlier this month that a visa scheme for nearly 5,000 foreign food haulage drivers – who can arrive from late October – would be extended to the end of February in a desperate bid to avoid chaos over the festive period.
Some 300 of the haulage drivers were encouraged to come to Britain immediately and allowed to stay until the end of March.
Dowden also defended Boris Johnson’s decision to take a holiday in a Spanish villa this week while the UK faces energy shortages and problems recruiting drivers.
“I’ve worked closely with three prime ministers and I can assure you that there’s no such thing as a holiday for a prime minister,” he told Good Morning Britain. “I know the prime minister will be and is working out there and is engaged with issues going on in the UK.”
The Tory chair added: “So this is a just a short break and he will be returning to the UK and I am expecting to see him later this week.”
Labour leader Keir Starmer, who visited the Mantra Learning HGV driver training centre in Middleton on Tuesday, hit out over the “absolutely foreseeable” shortage of lorry drivers.
Starmer got behind one of the big wheels and crashed into a fence during his visit, with the driving instructor telling the Labour leader: “You would’ve failed your test.”