Johnson eyes post-COVID economy as UK Conservatives meet
LONDON (AP) — British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he was ready to take “bold decisions” to rebuild the economy after the coronavirus pandemic as his Conservative Party meets Sunday for its first annual conference since 2019.
The Tory conference opens Sunday in the northwestern city of Manchester as a shortage of truck drivers to delivery fuel across Britain continues to cause empty pumps and long lines at many gas stations. Concerns about wider labor shortages, higher taxes, rising energy bills and a cut in welfare payouts beginning this week are among other challenges facing Johnson.
Despite the economic worries, opinion surveys suggest that Johnson and his Conservatives were polling ahead of the opposition Labour Party.
Before the conference, Johnson said he was ready to take the “big, bold decisions on the priorities people care about — like on social care, on supporting jobs, on climate change, tackling crime and leveling up.”
Asked about the truck driver shortage crisis, Johnson said it was a “chronic problem” associated with an overreliance on migrant workers willing to work for low wages and poor conditions. He said he wouldn’t repeat that mistake.
“The way forward for our country is not to just pull the big lever marked uncontrolled immigration, and allow in huge numbers of people to do work,” he told the BBC.
Referring to the 2016 referendum that led to Britain’s exit from the European Union, Johnson said: “When people voted for change in 2016 … they voted for the end of a broken model of the U.K. economy that relied on low wages and low skills and chronic low productivity, and we’re moving away from that.”
Johnson said Britain’s economy is going through a “period of adjustment” post-Brexit, and acknowledged that supply chain problems and shortages in food and fuel could continue until Christmas.
He also maintained that the situation at gas stations is improving after more than a week of disruptions — although retailers say drivers still can’t get gas at many pumps in the London area and southeast England.
Britain has long suffered from a shortage of truck drivers, but the problem has come to a head with the combination of Brexit, which ended the freedom of movement of workers from the EU to Britain, and the pandemic, which severely limited travel and halted training for domestic drivers supposed to replace those who left for their home countries.
Around 200 military personnel, including 100 drivers, will take to the roads starting Monday to help ease fuel supply shortages.
The Petrol Retailers Association has welcomed the move, but warned it would have a limited impact given the relatively small numbers involved.
The government also said Friday that it was extending an emergency visa program for thousands of foreign truck drivers.