UK fuel shortages: How to cope with the crisis

Snaking lines of cars seen at pumps across Britain over weekend as drivers panic buy and government considers sending in military to resolve haulier deficit

Joe Sommerlad
Monday 27 September 2021 14:15 BST

Related: Fight breaks out at petrol station as fuel shortage grips UK

The UK is currently mired in a petrol crisis after a weekend of “frenzied” panic buying at the pumps left half of Britain’s forecourts without fuel and Boris Johnson’s government reportedly considering sending in the Army to resolve the situation.

The problem is one of “temporary spikes in customer demand, not a national shortage of fuel”, according to a joint statement signed by a number of leading energy companies like Shell, Exxon Mobil and Greenergy, with industry experts agreeing that the issue is being caused by a lack of HGV drivers on hand to deliver supplies from distribution terminals to roadside service stations and supermarkets, the same shortfall that made for barren aisles and empty shelves in shops this summer as consumer goods went undelivered.

Fear among drivers that the UK could run out of fuel appears to be behind the spike in panic buying, recalling the Great Toilet Roll Dash of March 2020, which is only exacerbating the problem and leading to long queues, disruption and acrimony.

Customers are now being urged to queue for petrol only when they really need it in order to ease the flow.

“The good news is there is plenty of fuel,” transport secretary Grant Shapps told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show on Sunday. “The bad news is, if everyone carries on buying it when they don’t need it, then we will continue to have queues.”

Environment minister George Eustice has since made a similar appeal for order, as has Gordon Balmer, executive director of the Petrol Retailers Association (PRA), who said: “We need some calm. Please don't panic buy: if people drain the network then it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

Edmund King, the president of the AA, told BBC Breakfast the problem should pass in a matter of days if drivers cooperate.

“If you think about it, 30 million cars out there, if they’ve all got half a tank [and] if they all rush out to fill up the rest of the tank and the tank is about 60 litres, that will put a strain on the system.

“The good news is you can only really fill up once - you’ve got to use the fuel, so this should be a short-term thing.”

Which companies have said they are suffering from low stocks?

Brian Madderson, chairman of the PRA, told Sky News: “Some of our members, large groups with a portfolio of sites, report 50 per cent are dry as of yesterday, some even report as many as 90 per cent are dry as of yesterday. So you can see it is quite acute. Monday morning is going to start pretty dry.”

Not all providers have been affected by the delivery problems, with the likes of Asda, Sainsbury’s, Morrisons and Co-Op all reporting that they are operating as normal, although shortages elsewhere are likely to have led to a knock-on increase in queues for their pumps too.

One provider who has said it is suffering shortages is BP, which operates 1,200 petrol stations in Britain.

“With the intense demand seen over the past two days, we estimate that around 30 per cent of sites in this network do not currently have either of the main grades of fuel,” the company said.

Another is Exxon Mobil, which has said a small number of its Tesco petrol stations are affected.

One of the UK’s biggest forecourt operators, EG, which runs 367 petrol stations across the UK for brands including BP, Esso, Shell and Texaco, has meanwhile imposed a £30 limit on its pumps to keep more drivers on the road, even if that means some leaving without a full tank.

How can I find out which suppliers near me have fuel?

Despite the issues seen playing out over the weekend, the majority of British petrol stations are still open - even if some fuels are not currently available and individual pumps have had to be shut off.

Unfortunately, there is no central register of which sites are open and which fuels they have in stock so the best advice for drivers appears to be to check local newspaper websites and social media to enable you to get a sense of the situation in your immediate vicinity.

You might have to travel further afield to find a less crowded forecourt due to the panic buyers, which might in itself render the trip futile, a calculation it is down to the individual to make.

Ultimately, if your journey is not essential, drivers might be best advised to hold out until the panic passes rather than join the snaking lines of traffic, which police have warned could impede the progress of emergency services vehicles and prevent NHS staff getting to work.

What is the government doing to address the problem?

Business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng announced the exemption of the industry from the Competition Act 1998 late on Sunday to allow suppliers to better coordinate their deliveries to ensure that parts of the country most in need are catered to first.

Invoking what is known as the Downstream Oil Protocol, Mr Kwarteng said: “While there has always been and continues to be plenty of fuel at refineries and terminals, we are aware that there have been some issues with supply chains.

“This is why we will enact the protocol to ensure industry can share vital information and work together more effectively to ensure disruption is minimised.”

The government also announced a plan to issue temporary three-month visas for 5,000 foreign truck drivers to ease the supply issues in the run-up to Christmas. Around 25,000 truckers returned to Europe before Brexit and the deficit has been worsened by Britain being unable to test 40,000 new drivers because of Covid-19 lockdowns over the last 18 months.

Mr Shapps told the BBC the move would fix the “100 to 200” fuel tanker driver shortfall but business leaders warned the strategy is merely a short-term solution that will not solve what amounts to an acute labour shortage.

The British Retail Consortium called the move “too little, too late” while Ruby McGregor-Smith, president of the Confederation of British Industry, said the announcement was “the equivalent of throwing a thimble of water on a bonfire”.

Mr Balmer of the PRA told LBC Radio: “I would have thought anything like that is going to help, but from what I hear maybe that’s not enough, so I know the government are looking at other measures, such as drafting in military drivers.

“What we’re hoping is a lot of people have filled up over the weekend, a lot of people only fill up once a month, that might give us some respite to start to replenish stocks over the next few days.”

Across the Channel, France’s European affairs minister Clement Beaune branded Britain’s latest plunge into crisis just more evidence of “the intellectual fraud that was Brexit”.

Former Conservative MP and Remain campaigner Anna Soubry likewise blamed the situation on the withdrawal from the EU on Monday, telling ITV’s Good Morning Britain that similar problems did not previously occur because the UK enjoyed the free movement of labour in partnership with the continent.

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