Up to 10,500 lorry drivers and poultry workers can receive temporary UK visas as the government seeks to limit disruption in the run-up to Christmas.
The government confirmed that 5,000 fuel tanker and food lorry drivers will be eligible to work in the UK for three months, until Christmas Eve.
The scheme is also being extended to 5,500 poultry workers.
The transport secretary said he did not want to “undercut” British workers but could not stand by while queues formed.
But the British Chambers of Commerce said the measures were the equivalent of “throwing a thimble of water on a bonfire”.
And the Road Haulage Association said the announcement “barely scratches the surface”, adding that only offering visas until Christmas Eve “will not be enough for companies or the drivers themselves to be attractive”.
Marc Fels, director of the HGV Recruitment Centre, said visas for lorry drivers were “too little” and “too late”.
However, the news was welcomed by freight industry group Logistics UK, which called the policy “a huge step forward in solving the disruption to supply chains”.
A shortage of lorry drivers has caused problems for a range of industries in recent months, from supermarkets to fast food chains.
In recent days, some fuel deliveries have been affected, leading to lengthy queues at petrol stations - despite ministers insisting the UK has plenty of fuel.
There are reports of dozens of cars queuing in London by 07:00 BST on Sunday morning, while many filling stations had signs up saying they had no fuel.
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps told the BBC’s Andrew Marr that there was enough fuel in the country and that if people were “sensible” and only filled up when they needed to there would not be shortages.
As well as allowing more foreign workers, other measures include using Ministry of Defence examiners to increase HGV (heavy goods vehicle) testing capacity, and sending nearly one million letters to drivers who hold an HGV licence, encouraging them back into the industry.
Officials said the loan of MoD examiners would help put on “thousands of extra tests” over the next 12 weeks.
Recruitment for additional short-term HGV drivers and poultry workers will begin in October.
Mr Shapps said: “We are acting now, 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.”
Survey findings about why there are driver shortages
Logistics UK estimates that the UK is in need of about 90,000 HGV drivers - with existing shortages made worse by the pandemic, tax changes, Brexit, an ageing workforce, and low wages and poor working conditions.
The British Poultry Council has previously warned it may not have the workforce to process as many turkeys as normal this Christmas because it has historically relied on EU labour - but after Brexit it is now more difficult and expensive to use non-UK workers.
The Department for Transport said it recognised that importing foreign labour “will not be the long-term solution” to the problem and that it wanted to see employers invest to build a “high-wage, high-skill economy”.
It said up to 4,000 people would soon be able to take advantage of training courses to become HGV drivers.
This includes free, short, intensive courses, funded by the Department for Education, to train up to 3,000 new HGV drivers.
These new “skills bootcamps” will train drivers to be road ready and gain a Cat C or Cat C&E license, helping to tackle the current HGV driver shortage.
The remaining 1,000 drivers will be trained through courses accessed locally and funded by the government’s adult education budget, the DfT said.
Fuel tanker drivers need additional safety qualifications and the government said it was working with the industry to ensure drivers can access these as quickly as possible.
Mr Fels said many young people were “desperate” to get into the industry but couldn’t afford the thousands of pounds it costs to get a HGV license.
He called for the government to recognise the industry as a “vocation” and offer student loans to help fund training.
Sue Terpilowski, from the Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport, said conditions for drivers also needed to improve, pointing out that facilities such as overnight lorry parks were much better on the continent.
Richard Walker, managing director at supermarket Iceland, said it was “about time” ministers relaxed immigration rules in a bid to solve the HGV driver shortage and called for key workers, including food retail workers, to be prioritised at the pumps.
On Saturday the BBC spoke to a number of drivers who had queued or struggled to get fuel.
Jennifer Ward, a student paramedic of three years for Medicare EMS, which provides 999 frontline support to the East of England Ambulance Service, said she had to travel to five stations to get diesel for her ambulance.
Matt McDonnell, chief executive of Medicare EMS, said a member of staff cancelled their shift because they had been unable to get fuel and said he was waiting to see if the government would introduce measures to prioritise key workers, like they had for shopping during the pandemic.
’Thimble of water on a bonfire’
Industry groups the Food and Drink Federation and Logistics UK both welcomed the visa changes, with federation chief Ian Wright calling the measures “pragmatic”.
But the British Retail Consortium said the number of visas being offered would “do little to alleviate the current shortfall”.
It said supermarkets alone needed an additional 15,000 HGV drivers to operate at full capacity ahead of Christmas.
Labour’s shadow foreign secretary Lisa Nandy said the changes were needed but described them as “a sticking plaster at the eleventh hour”.
“Once again the government has been caught asleep at the wheel when they should have been planning for months for this scenario,” she told the BBC.