British extends truck driver visa program as fuel crisis persists

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 The British government has extended an emergency visa program for truck drivers as fuel shortages showed few signs of abating Saturday, particularly in London and the southeast of England.

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In an announcement late Friday, the Conservative government said temporary visas for nearly 5,000 foreign truck drivers it hopes to recruit would run until the end of February instead of expire on Christmas Eve as originally planned.

The short duration of the program announced last week drew widespread criticism for not being attractive enough to entice foreign drivers.

The government said 300 fuel drivers would be able to come to the U.K. from overseas “immediately” and stay through March. Some 4,700 other visas intended for foreign food truck drivers will last from late October to the end of February.

In another move intended to ease the pressure at the pumps, around 200 military personnel, including 100 drivers, will be deployed from Monday to help to relieve fuel supply shortages that have caused empty pumps and long lines at filling stations.

The government says the situation already was improving.

“U.K. forecourt stock levels are trending up, deliveries of fuel to forecourts are above normal levels, and fuel demand is stabilizing,” Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng said. “It’s important to stress there is no national shortage of fuel in the U.K., and people should continue to buy fuel as normal.”

However, the Petrol Retailers Association, which represents independent filling stations, warned that fuel supplies remain a problem and could be getting worse in places.

“In London and the southeast, and possibly parts of eastern England, if anything, it had got worse,” the group’s chairman, Brian Madderson, told BBC radio.

Madderson welcomed the deployment of military drivers next week but warned it would have a limited impact.

“This isn’t going to be the major panacea,” he said. “It’s a large help, but in terms of the volume, they are not going to be able to carry that much.”

In an attempt to stave off a shortage of Christmas turkeys, the government also announced that a total of 5,500 foreign poultry workers will be allowed into the U.K. from late October and to stay until the end of the year.

Johnson’s pro-Brexit government is keen to downplay talk that the driver shortage is a result of Britain’s departure from the European Union.

 — Agencies

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