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U.K. Offers Thousands of Visas to Foreign Truckers to Ease Driver Shortage

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.