Brexit is to blame for the chaos at Britain’s airports, which has seen hundreds of flights cancelled and thousands of people’s half-term travel plans disrupted, London mayor Sadiq Khan has said.
Mr Khan called on the government to relax immigration rules to allow airport and airline workers who returned to their EU countries of origin following Brexit to come back to the UK, where the travel industry has been hit by staff shortages.
But transport secretary Grant Shapps denied that the problems were caused by the UK’s withdrawal from the EU, and rejected calls for aviation workers to be added to the list of shortage occupations, which would mean that those wishing to work in the industry would be subject to lighter immigration controls.
Steve Heapy, the CEO of airline Jet2, confronted Mr Shapps over the impact of Brexit at an emergency meeting on Friday, telling him that EU withdrawal had taken “hundreds of thousands, if not millions” of people out of the jobs market.
But Mr Shapps today insisted that the shortages were due to the aviation industry cutting staff numbers “too deep” during the Covid pandemic, and said it was up to companies to attract home-grown workers by offering higher pay.
Mr Khan said that the crisis was a “self-inflicted” problem caused by the government.
“The government should recognise that there are shortages in this occupation, of those who work in aviation,” the mayor told BBC1’s Sunday Morning. “What you can do very easily is to make sure those who were in those jobs before, who’ve gone back to their country of origin in the EU, are encouraged to come back.
“What the government’s got to do is get around the table with the aviation sector, the airports, those who run the airlines, to see what exactly their problems are. If there is a shortage, change the list to make sure those [workers] can come easier than other occupations.
“This is self-inflicted from the government. It isn’t about Covid. This is about Brexit plus Covid.”
But asked if the government would relax post-Brexit immigration rules for aviation workers, as it did in response to shortages of HGV drivers and butchers, Mr Shapps said: “The answer can’t always be to reach for the lever marked ‘More immigration’.”
He told interviewer Sophie Raworth: “We are seeing the same problems across Europe. If it were only to do with Brexit, then there wouldn’t be a problem at Schiphol [airport in Amsterdam] or elsewhere. So that clearly can’t be true.
“If anybody’s solution is that all we need to do is employ cheap labour from somewhere else – I didn’t vote for Brexit, but the country did and we made our choice.
“We want a high-wage, high-skill economy. That means the aviation sector, like all other sectors – as the HGV lorry-driver sector has now done – must train people domestically.
“Airports across Europe have also had the same queues, so if it was just a Brexit issue, then that wouldn’t be the case.
“As with lorry drivers, we found the solutions were actually in making sure decent salaries were paid, that people were trained here in this country, that people were attracted to a job not just by better salaries, but also better conditions as well.
“That’s the sort of economy we want to run in this country, that’s what the country voted for, and that’s what we’re delivering.”
Mr Shapps said he had introduced changes to make it quicker for new airport recruits to get security clearance and start training, but insisted it was “principally” the responsibility of the industry to sort out problems in time for the summer holidays.
He dismissed a call from Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary for the army to be called in to speed up operations in airports. And he said he would take action to speed up compensation claims from passengers.
The transport secretary said he wanted a “proper dispute resolution, a proper charter for passengers”, to make sure that they have access to a quick and straightforward system for claiming compensation, or can be put on alternative flights.
“It can’t be acceptable that it’s so complicated sometimes to get a flight rearranged, to get your money back,” he said. “I want it to be more like ‘delay repay’ works on trains, where it’s an automatic process.”