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PM insists there is ‘no alternative’ to staffing shortages as he denies crisis

Closed off petrol pumps at a Shell petrol station in central London. Picture date: Tuesday October 5, 2021. Photo by Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire

By Sam Blewett and Josie Clarke, PA

Boris Johnson has insisted there is “no alternative” to the problems stemming from staffing shortages as he faced criticism for denying that the UK is in crisis.

The Prime Minister said on Tuesday he is “not worried” about rising prices and the jobs gap that have played a role in petrol pumps running dry and risk a mass pig cull and shortages this Christmas.

Mr Johnson played down the prospect that rising inflation rates could cancel out wage growth as he pins his long-term hopes on transitioning into a high-wage, high-skilled economy in the wake of Brexit.

But warnings also emerged from the construction industry that shortages of labour and materials could cause projects to be delayed and costs to rise “significantly”.

Asked on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme if there was a crisis, the Prime Minister said: “No, I think that, on the contrary, what you’re seeing with the UK economy, and indeed the global economy, is very largely – in the supply chains – the stresses and strains that you’d expect from a giant waking up, and that’s what’s happening.”

Labour Party chair Anneliese Dodds said Mr Johnson “is so out of touch that he can’t see a crisis when it’s staring him in the face” as she highlighted teachers who could not get to school because they could not find petrol or those who will struggle after the Universal Credit cut.

“It is a crisis made in Downing Street and it’s the Prime Minister’s responsibility to sort it out,” the MP said.

The Prime Minister, attending the Tory Party conference in Manchester, was pressed on what his plans are for staffing shortages that have hit the hospitality industry and led to farmers warning up to 120,000 pigs will have to be incinerated because of a shortage of butchery and abattoir workers.

“There is no alternative,” he told Channel 4 News from the Midland Hotel as he reiterated plans for investment and training for workers.

It was a phrase he repeated when asked about concerns over rising inflation and interest rates during the transition into his “new approach” after Brexit.

“In a famous phrase, there is no alternative,” he told ITV News.

“We can do much, much better by becoming a higher wage, higher productivity economy. And, what I think … we’ve got a fantastic supply chain, fantastically clever people work on our logistics, and they will fix all these problems.”

He told BBC News “people have been worried about inflation for a long time and it hasn’t materialised”, and said he did not share others’ concerns.

“We’re moving to a new approach and I do not want to go back to what I think is a tired old failed approach, which people voted against twice in 2016 and in 2019,” he said.

“Some of the people who would be writing to me may be worried about this, but I’m not worried about this because, actually, I think it would be good for their businesses to invest in people.”

Mark Reynolds, the group chief executive at construction firm Mace, warned that labour staff shortages have been “exacerbated by Brexit” due to restricted access to EU workers.

“Undoubtedly there is a risk that across the sector we may see projects delayed or costs increased significantly due to current challenges around labour and materials,” he said.

Earlier in the day, Mr Johnson said that just 127 of the 300 visas for tanker drivers to come to the UK immediately have been granted and argued supply chain problems are caused “very largely by the strength of the economic recovery”.

“What we said to the road haulage industry was: ‘Fine, give us the names of the drivers that you want to bring in and we will sort out the visas, you’ve got another 5,000 visas’,” the Prime Minister told BBC Breakfast.
“They only produced 127 names so far. What that shows is the global shortage.”

The Department for Transport later clarified that of the 127 visas issued, 27 were for fuel tanker drivers and the remaining 100 were for food hauliers.

Mr Johnson has insisted Christmas would be better than last year’s coronavirus-blighted festive season, despite warnings about supply chain problems.

However he has repeatedly refused to rule out shortages in the wider economy in the run-up to the festive season.
As well as an estimated shortfall of 100,000 HGV drivers, businesses from meat producers to retailers have warned of empty shelves if the shortages are not addressed.

The Road Haulage Association (RHA) disagreed with Mr Johnson’s comments over the Government asking for names of European lorry drivers they want to work in the UK.

Rod McKenzie, managing director of policy and public affairs at the RHA, told the PA news agency: “There isn’t a database of lorry drivers with names attached to them and want to work in Britain that British lorry firms can tap into and say: ‘We’ll have that one, that one, that one or that one’. It doesn’t work like that, it doesn’t exist.”

He added: “Why would you give up a well-paid job in Europe to come and drive a truck in Britain for a very short period of time when you have to get a six-month let on a flat and go through all the hassle, initially to be chucked out on Christmas Eve, but now, we’re told, for a bit later?

“It is not an attractive offer and, effectively, what Europeans have done is kind of vote with their feet on that.”

The Prime Minister’s comments came as average petrol prices rose 0.91p a litre in a week from 135.19p last week to 136.1p on Tuesday, and diesel 1.7p from 137.9p to 139.2p, according to new Government figures.

It is the highest level for petrol since it cost 136.9p in September 2013, and for diesel since it was 139.15p in October of the same year.

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