How and when will UK’s fuel crisis end?

Petrol association says between 50 and 90 per cent of stations have run dry

Matt Mathers
Monday 27 September 2021 17:53
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Environment Secretary George Eustice denies plans to use army personnel as delivery drivers

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A cabinet minister has played down reports that the government had been planning to draft in the army to alleviate Britain's worsening fuel supply crisis.

Prime minister Boris Johnson is holding an emergency meeting of ministers on Monday to reportedly discuss putting soldiers on notice to drive tankers to petrol stations to replenish supplies.

It came after the Petrol Retailers Association (PRA), which represents most stations across the country, warned that between 50 and 90 per cent of member sites had run dry.

But George Eustice said there are "no plans at the moment" to call in the army.

How did we get to this point and what are the problems?

Government ministers are insisting that the country is not running out of petrol and that there are adequate supplies.

Instead, the problem is that there isn't enough heavy goods vehicle (HGV) drivers to deliver petrol to stations fast enough to meet consumer demand.

These driver shortages, which have been a problem for some time, have been exacerbated by Brexit and the Covid pandemic.

Reports of some stations running low on supplies have prompted people to panic buy, resulting in supplies further depleting and pictures of long queues at forecourts as drivers attempt to stock up.

The government says there will be enough fuel to go around if people stop panic buying.

Brexit has contributed to the shortage of HGV drivers in the UK, although it is not the only factor.

According to the Office for National Statistics, there were 37,000 EU drivers in the UK in 2019; that number now stands at around 24,500.

Other countries including Germany are experiencing problems but the UK is the worst affected country.

After the UK left the EU, eastern European HGV drivers are struggling to get clearance to work here.

Industry leaders say the UK's hostile environment post-Brexit and increased bureaucracy is putting workers off coming to the UK.

What needs to be done to end the crisis and how long is it likely to last?

In a nutshell, more HGV drivers need to be hired to help get fuel supplies – and other areas of the economy hit by the shortages – back to normal levels.

Over the weekend the government announced a temporary visa scheme to make it easier for foreign lorry drivers to come to the UK.

Up to 5,000 visas will be issued to workers for three months up until Christmas Eve.

Letters have also been sent to retired drivers, encouraging them to go back to work in a bid to plug the gap.

Some 5,500 poultry workers will also be offered visas amid fears of turkey shortages at Christmas.

Ministers have also drawn up plans to train 4,000 new HGV drivers in the UK, although the process could take up to 12 weeks.

But Keir Starmer, the Labour Party leader, said the measures were not enough as he hit out at the government's "total lack of planning".

Industry leaders have also warned that the granting of visas and training 4,000 new drivers will be nowhere near enough to end the crisis.

Reports suggested that the government was considering drafting in the army to alleviate the crisis.

Ministers were said to be mulling whether or not to put soldiers on notice to drive tankers to forecourts.

This plan has since been played down by George Eustice, the environment secretary.

Brian Madderson of the PRA warned that even if troops are sent for, they do not have the skills required and will not be ready in time to fix the immediate crisis.

“There has been training going on in the background for military personnel," he told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme.

“But that’s perhaps just confined to moving the tanker by articulated truck from point A to point B. One of the difficulties is loading, and the tanker drivers currently load their own tanks at the gantry at the terminals, and then most are providing the delivery to the forecourt.”

He added: “This is a skilled job and we will be working with government and industry to see how we can best move it forward.”

The government is hoping that the immediate crisis will ease as people begin to run out of storage to put their supplies of petrol in.

As part of the longer-term strategy, and in addition to training more drivers, MrJohnson is calling on firms to increase wages to make lorry driving more attractive.

Paul Mummery of the Road Haulage Association told The Independent the current crisis comes as “no surprise”.

He says the RHA has been warning the government “for years about the effect the driver shortage is having on the supply chain.”

He added: “Over the last few months we’ve been pressing them hard to work with our industry to tackle the crisis head on. We welcome plans for temporary visas to get overseas truckers to drive UK lorries but this will only scratch the surface in the short term – we don’t know how effective it will be yet.

“We also need HGV drivers to be on the government’s Shortage Occupation List to help firms plug some gaps now. Longer-term we need more support around apprenticeships and training to get the next generation of young British truckers behind the wheel.”

Elizabeth de Jong, director of policy at Logistics UK, told The Independent the government's introduction of temporary visas is welcomed.

But questions remain over when the crisis might come to an end.

“How quickly the driver shortage can be resolved depends on how quickly the new testing capacity becomes available, how many drivers the visa scheme attracts and how quickly the additional training can be delivered,” Ms de Jong said.

“We are working with government to ensure these are delivered at pace.”

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