Transport secretary Grant Shapps has admitted that Brexit has been “factor” behind the fuel crisis – despite his previous claims the UK’s exit from the EU had helped the country adjust to supply problems.
The cabinet minister insisted last week that cynics were “wrong” to blame Brexit for the drastic shortage of lorry drivers causing petrol shortages and the closure of forecourts.
Mr Shapps continued to argue on Tuesday that the main cause of the fuel shortages had been the cancellation of heavy goods vehicle (HGV) driver tests last year due to the pandemic.
However, the transport secretary added: “Brexit I hear mentioned a lot, and it no doubt will have been a factor.”
Speaking to broadcasters, Mr Shapps said: “On the other hand, it has actually helped us to change rules to be able to test more drivers more quickly. So, it has actually worked in both ways.”
Mr Shapps also rejected criticism that the government has been too slow to mobilise the Army to help deal with the fuel crisis.
Ministers have announced they were putting troops on standby to deliver supplies as filling stations continued to run dry. “There is a series of escalations that you go through in a crisis like this,” the transport secretary told broadcasters.
He added: “We have already put 18 different steps in place which stretch right the way back to the spring. The system was just about coping until last weekend and it would have been capable of continuing to do so.”
Mr Shapps condemned motorists who tried to fill up plastic water bottles with petrol. “It is dangerous and extremely unhelpful,” he said. “Unfortunately, as we have seen with toilet rolls ... once people start to pursue a particular item, it can quickly escalate.”
Mr Shapps also claimed there were early signs that pressure on filling stations was beginning to ease. “There are now the first very tentative signs of stabilisation in forecourt storage which won’t be reflected in the queues as yet,” he said.
Brian Madderson, chair of the Petrol Retailers Association (PRA), said that “disappointingly” people were continuing to panic buy fuel.
But the PRA said only 37 per cent of its petrol station forecourts have reported being out of fuel on Tuesday. “With regular restocks taking place, this percentage is likely to improve further over the next 24 hours,” the association stated.
The PRA had said on Monday that members had reported 50 per cent to 90 per cent of pumps were dry in some areas.
“There is still a bit of panic buying, there is still queuing but we are hopeful that we are seeing the first signs of a move towards equilibrium later in the week,” Madderson told Sky News.
Meanwhile, Mike Granatt, the former head of the civil contingencies secretariat, said it was time for Boris Johnson to stop “hiding away” and make a clear announcement to discourage panic buying.
Ministers are holding another meeting on Tuesday to monitor the fuel crisis. The government has said Army tanker drivers are on standby, with defence sources saying 75 drivers would initially be given training to enable them to drive fuel tankers.
The government has also committed to issuing 5,000 temporary, three-month visas to foreign drivers.
Mr Shapps last week suggested that foreign workers had helped create “systemic” problems in haulage – saying UK wages had been held down by “importing cheap European, often eastern European labour”.
The EU’s former chief negotiator Michel Barnier has said Britain’s fuel crisis is a “direct consequence” of Brexit and the decision to “end the freedom of movement” for workers across the continent.
It followed similar comments by Olaf Scholz, the man set to replace Angela Merkel as Germany’s chancellor. “We worked very hard to convince the British not to leave the union.
“Now they decided different and I hope they will manage the problems coming from that,” said the leader of the Social Democrats, referring to the driver shortage and freedom of movement.
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