LONDON — Responding to an escalating crisis, Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain reversed course this weekend and offered thousands of visas to foreign truckers to combat a driver shortage that has left some supermarket shelves empty and caused long lines at gas stations.
The decision, announced late Saturday, reflects the growing alarm within the government over a disruption to supplies that has prompted panic buying and, in some places, caused fuel to run out and gas stations to close.
So great is the concern that there has been speculation that the military could be called up to drive trucks. That has not yet happened, but Defense Ministry staff members will be asked to help speed up the process for truck licensing applications.
Since January, after Britain completed the final stage of Brexit, employers have been unable to freely recruit European workers, as was previously the case. The coronavirus pandemic has also exacerbated the crisis that stems from a long-term shortage of British truck drivers.
The British Department for Transport said in a statement that 5,000 fuel tanker and food truck drivers would be allowed to work in the country for three months in the prelude to Christmas to provide short-term relief for the commercial hauling industry. The department also noted that letters would be sent to truck drivers in Britain who hold licenses but are not currently working, appealing to them to return. The statement added that visas for 5,500 poultry workers would be made available for the same short period to reduce pressures on the food industry.
Until this weekend, many lawmakers who had backed the withdrawal from the European Union had argued that one of the positive consequences of Brexit was the pressure that it would place on employers to train more British truck drivers and improve the wages for an arduous job.
On Sunday, Grant Shapps, the transportation secretary, defended the move to bring in foreign workers. He told the BBC that while he did not want to “undercut” British workers, he could not stand by while lines formed outside gas stations. Mr. Shapps also said that Britain had adequate fuel supplies, and he appealed to motorists not to buy more than they normally would.
But Keir Starmer, the leader of the opposition Labour Party, criticized the government’s move and accused it of a lack of planning. Mr. Starmer told the BBC, “We knew in particular that when we exited the E.U., there would be a need for a backup plan to deal with the situation.”
It was far from clear on Sunday whether the new visa measures would resolve a crisis that, for some, has echoes of the chaos that gripped the country in 2000, when a fuel protest rocked the government of Prime Minister Tony Blair.
“It’s going to be part of a learning process that the U.K. has to go through,” said David Henig, a London-based expert on British trade policy for the European Center for International Political Economy, a research institute. He noted that when Britain was operating under E.U. economic rules, workers could move freely between countries in the bloc.
“We had a high-flow labor economy, and we are changing to a static one,” Mr. Henig said. He added that the panic buying of fuel was not irrational, especially after it became clear that some gas stations were running dry. Britons have for months seen periodic shortages of goods on supermarket shelves, he noted.
Countless industries in Britain have complained recently about lagging deliveries, with shortages of McDonald’s milkshakes and roasted chicken at Nando’s restaurants generating headlines.
“Everyone knew there had been some shortages for some time,” Mr. Henig said, “so it was not as if this was coming out of the blue.”
Many countries in Europe are facing driver shortages, so unless companies in Britain offer significantly higher wages, it is unclear how many workers will take advantage of the three-month visas. “You can make it worth people’s while, but it won’t be cheap and it won’t be easy,” Mr. Henig said, adding that securing a visa involved considerable paperwork.
Though business groups generally welcomed the government’s move, some expressed doubt that it would be sufficient. The government’s reversal also comes after the hauling and logistics industries in Britain pleaded with lawmakers to ease restrictions on visas for drivers from the European Union. Logistics U.K., a trade group, had sought 10,000 seasonal visas for drivers, similar to a program for farm workers.
“While we welcome the visa scheme to allow H.G.V. drivers from abroad to help temporarily fill domestic shortages in food and fuel logistics, the limit of 5,000 visas will do little to alleviate the current shortfall,” said Andrew Opie, the director of food and sustainability at the British Retail Consortium, a trade association, referring to drivers of heavy goods vehicles.
“Supermarkets alone have estimated they need at least 15,000 H.G.V. drivers for their businesses to be able to operate at full capacity ahead of Christmas and avoid disruption or availability issues,” he added in a statement.
Until this weekend, the government had resisted the option of issuing more visas. Instead, it increased the allowable number of hours a driver could work each day, and it has proposed recruitment initiatives.
In his statement, Mr. Shapps, the transport secretary, argued that the long-term solution lay with British employers. “We are acting now,” he said, “but the industries must also play their part with working conditions continuing to improve and the deserved salary increases continuing to be maintained in order for companies to retain new drivers.”
The Road Haulage Association, which represents the British road transportation industry, has estimated that there is a shortage of 100,000 drivers. “Ninety-five percent of everything we get in Britain comes on the back of a truck,” Rod McKenzie, the association’s director of policy, said recently.
The post-Brexit exodus of European workers is only one cause of the long-term driver shortage. The industry has had difficulties attracting workers to jobs that are traditionally lower paid and require long, grueling hours away from home. Truckers have also complained that safe parking spaces and rest stops can be hard to find.
More recently, the pandemic has caused disruptions in driver training, which takes up to six months, slowing the intake of new truckers.
A lack of truck drivers is not the only labor shortage weighing on companies in Britain. A major poultry producer, 2 Sisters Food Group, recently said that Brexit had contributed to a 15 percent reduction in its work force this year. And this month, the British Meat Processors Association warned that companies were six weeks behind their Christmas production schedules, almost guaranteeing shortages of popular items over the holidays.
Overall, an estimated 200,000 E.U. citizens left Britain during the pandemic and have not returned. Mr. Henig, of the European Center for International Political Economy, said that the disruption could be a feature of life for some time to come.
“We are at the start of an economic transition, and we are not sure what it will lead to,” he said, noting that Britain had broken away from a European market within which it was fully integrated.
“We have never seen this before,” Mr. Henig added, “so we don’t know what happens.”
Eshe Nelson contributed reporting.