Will the UK offer temporary
visas for HGV drivers again
this year?

In the autumn of last year, the UK government introduced temporary visa measures to help tackle a shortage of HGV drivers in the busy period leading up to Christmas.

The scheme made 5,000 temporary short-term visas available for food and fuel haulage drivers willing to work in the UK. The government also introduced a temporary concession allowing non-visa nationals coming to work in the UK as a HGV fuel tanker driver to seek permission at the border.

The move was made following pressure from industry bosses unable to recruit the qualified workers they needed to keep vehicles on the road in the run-up to Christmas. The road haulage sector has previously been heavily reliant on the free movement of workers from the EU, therefore the ‘mass exodus’ of European citizens observed in the midst of Brexit and the coronavirus pandemic led to critical labour shortages.

Now that these temporary concessions have come to an end, what are the remaining visa options available for foreign HGV drivers, and are we likely to see a similar temporary scheme repeated this year?

Is there still a shortage of HGV drivers in the UK?

According to industry body the Road Haulage Association (RHA), a shortage of HGV drivers was already evident before the pandemic. However, the situation rapidly deteriorated and the shortage reached crisis point in 2021, forcing the government to act.

Last year’s widely reported driver shortage was exacerbated by a combination of factors, including:

  • Brexit – The uncertainty of Brexit and future rights to live and work in the UK caused many EU nationals to leave the UK. Those that remained were required to apply for settled or pre-settled status under the EU Settlement Scheme (EUSS) to retain their right to work in the UK. Workers seeking to enter the UK from overseas would need to apply for a visa under the post-Brexit points-based immigration system.
  • COVID-19 – Many drivers returned to their home country during the pandemic, and the majority did not return. The complete shutdown of driving tests during lockdowns also resulted in the loss of thousands of tests, meaning drivers were unable to complete their training successfully.
  • Loss of resident workers – Factors such as an ageing workforce and poor working conditions led to many drivers entering retirement or seeking employment in other sectors.

Following several initiatives introduced by the government, the sector has since begun to recover and industry bodies are reporting positively on the number of HGV drivers stabilising.

The government measures introduced are aimed at encouraging more drivers from the resident labour market into employment rather than making it easier for employers to recruit from overseas. For example, changes to the training and testing processes led to 74% more lorry tests being carried out between January and March 2022 compared to pre-pandemic levels, according to official statistics.

Are HGV drivers eligible for a Skilled Worker visa?

Under the UK’s post-Brexit immigration system, most employers looking to hire workers without an existing right to work in the UK will apply to sponsor those workers under the Skilled Worker route. Currently, it is not possible for employers to sponsor foreign HGV drivers on a Skilled Worker visa, as the occupation does not appear on the list of jobs eligible for the route.

Other roles in the industry do qualify for a Skilled Worker visa, such as HGV driving instructors and HGV mechanics. However, drivers themselves would only qualify for a visa if the government was to add the occupation to the Shortage Occupation List (SOL), as has been done this year for other so-called ‘low skill’ roles such as care workers and home carers.

With the temporary visa scheme now closed and no sign of changes to the SOL being forthcoming, there is not currently a viable immigration route in place to allow UK employers to recruit HGV drivers from overseas.

Will a temporary visa scheme be introduced again this year?

When the temporary visa scheme was introduced in autumn 2021, the government stressed that it was intended to alleviate short-term pressures on the road haulage sector and was not intended to provide a long-term solution to employers struggling to recruit the workers they need. Instead, the government encouraged employers to invest in the UK resident labour market and improve conditions within the sector to increase staff retention rates.

Despite the recent increase in newly qualified drivers and schemes to help attract existing licence holders back into employment, it is possible that the sector could face similar shortages in the run-up to Christmas again this year. The government has not indicated that any similar schemes will run again, although many representatives in the industry continue to call on the government to add HGV drivers to the SOL, which would allow employers to address shortages by recruiting overseas workers in longer term roles.

As such, in August 2022 the then Minister for Safe and Legal Migration Kevin Foster MP commissioned the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) to carry out another review of the SOL. The MAC is expected to report on its findings by the end of March 2023. The government will then consider the recommendations with a view to implementing any changes in autumn 2023.

In the meantime, employers recruiting qualified HGV drivers must rely on the UK domestic workforce, or those who hold existing permission to work in the UK in their own right.

Help with sponsoring overseas workers

If your business is looking to recruit skilled labour from overseas and requires support with the process, Smith Stone Walters can help.

Our team of immigration experts can help your business obtain and maintain a sponsor licence and assist with the submission of individual visa applications to ensure your business can recruit the skills it needs to grow. To find out how we can work with you, please contact us today.

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