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Business leaders call for relaxation of post-Brexit visa rules

The government is under pressure to relax post-Brexit migration rules to unblock Britain’s worst supply-chain crisis since the 1970s, with business leaders warning that continued disruption could ruin Christmas.

Industry bosses said urgent changes to the visa system were required as retailers struggle to keep shelves stocked, and restaurants run out of food and drink in the meltdown triggered by Covid and Brexit reports

Industry estimates put the shortage of workers needed to drive lorries, handle goods in warehouses and pick fruit and vegetables at hundreds of thousands. Company bosses and trade groups are now warning that if ministers refuse to allow more EU workers into the UK, they risk a deeper crisis this winter.

However, ministers appear unwilling to give way on visas. The government continued to insist on Wednesday that employers needed to do more to recruit and retain British workers. A Home Office spokesperson said: “The British people repeatedly voted to end free movement and take back control of our immigration system. Employers should invest in our domestic workforce instead of relying on labour from abroad.”

Guardian analysis of labour market figures from the Office for National Statistics confirms the extent of the fall in eastern Europeans in the UK workforce since the start of the pandemic, and after Britain left the EU earlier this year.

The number of Romanian and Bulgarian workers in the UK, who would typically fill lower-paid logistics and food production roles, has plunged by almost 90,000, or 24% since the end of 2019. Employees from eight eastern European countries, including Poland and the Czech Republic, have fallen by more than 100,000, or 12%.

Meanwhile, industry sources said in addition to lorry driver shortages, there was a lack of tens of thousands of seasonal agricultural workers, and 14,000 needed in meat-processing plants.

Tony Danker, director-general of the CBI, said there was no doubt staff shortages were starting to drag back Britain’s economic recovery from the pandemic and that changes to migration rules could help firms with acute problems.

“The government needs to take a sector view of the challenges and identify solutions that can have an impact quickly. That could mean being agile in the way we use our immigration system to bring in fixed term visas for shortage occupations,” he said.

Rod McKenzie, of the Road Haulage Association, said ministers were attempting to wash their hands of the problem and lay it at the industry’s door to fix. “It’s frustrating that the government is so inactive on this issue,” he said. 



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