Boris Johnson claim about HGV driver visas sparks confusion

8 October 2021

Dan Walker: Do you recognise these figures, because you’re trying to push to get some HGV drivers coming and working here, according to one of the papers today just 27 drivers have applied for...

Boris Johnson: 127.

Dan Walker: Well we’ve got 27.

Boris Johnson: OK, it’s 127. And anyway…

During an interview with Dan Walker on BBC Breakfast on Tuesday 5 October, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said 127 foreign HGV drivers had applied for short-term visas aimed at tackling shortages.

The Prime Minister was responding to a question about a front-page report in The Times which said only 27 fuel tanker drivers from the EU had applied to an emergency government scheme to help deliver petrol across the UK. Mr Johnson contradicted the 27 figure and appeared to suggest the correct figure was 127.

He added: “So, 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’ll sort out the visas and we’ve got another 5,000 visas’. They only produced 127 names, so far, and what that shows is the global shortage.” 

Mr Johnson’s comments were widely reported by outlets such as Sky News, the BBC, The Guardian and Reuters. But they also sparked confusion, with the Cabinet Office insisting after the interview that The Times’s report was in fact accurate and that 27 is the correct figure for the number of fuel tanker drivers who’d applied for visas.

Why did the PM say 127 visas had been applied for?

Bizarrely, the Cabinet Office and other Government departments have refused to officially confirm why Mr Johnson said 127 visas had been applied for. So it’s unclear whether he misspoke, or was instead giving an accurate figure for the total number of HGV drivers applying for visas (rather than just fuel tanker drivers, which was what The Times’ story referred to).

According to a report from the Press Association (which appears to have been picked up by national outlets including the i and MailOnline and local papers such as The Argus), the Department for Transport later clarified that of 127 visas issued, 27 were for fuel tanker drivers and 100 for food hauliers. This would suggest that Mr Johnson was simply talking about a different, broader group of drivers when he referred to 127 visas.

Yet when we asked for confirmation later this week, neither the Department for Transport nor any other Government department would officially say that the 127 total figure or the 100 food haulier figure were correct. (The Press Association told us: “We stand by our reporting… we have received no complaints about the accuracy of the figures from the Department for Transport and Department for Business”.)

We’ve spent three days trying to get to the bottom of whether the Prime Minister misspoke or just gave a broader figure, a process which has involved at least 10 phone calls and even more emails to four different Government departments—the Cabinet Office, Department for Transport, Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.

However all have either declined to comment or simply referred us to the figure on 27 fuel drivers without commenting on the 100 or 127 figures. When we pushed the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy for an explanation, a spokesperson told us simply: “Afraid the statement we issued you with earlier is as far as we (and other depts) are going on this one.”

So as things stand we simply can’t say why the Prime Minister said 127 was the correct figure.

This isn’t good enough. When the Prime Minister appears on national television quoting one figure, and seeming to dispute another accurate figure that has appeared elsewhere in the media, the government should act to clear up the confusion— and viewers should be told what the figures actually relate to.

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