Fuel crisis: Minister says army not needed ‘at the moment’

Ministers were considering ‘Operation Escalin’, bringing in hundreds of soldiers to replace missing tanker drivers

Rob Merrick
Deputy Political Editor
Monday 27 September 2021 12:46
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Environment secretary denies plans to use army as delivery drivers

The army will not be called in to ease the petrol crisis, a cabinet minister has said, as the government staged an emergency meeting to discuss the option.

Ministers were considering triggering ‘Operation Escalin’, which could have seen hundreds of soldiers ordered to take over tankers, because of the shortage of drivers.

But George Eustice, the environment secretary, said: “We don’t judge that is necessary at the moment.”

The government had stoked expectations that the move was imminent, with the prime minister thought to be “preparing” to deploy troops, after at least half of local filling stations ran dry.

The Petrol Retailers Association (PRA) reported the alarming survey of its independent members – with up to 90 per cent out of fuel in some areas – as oil giant BP said one third of its sites had no supplies.

But the PRA questioned whether the army could end the crisis, pointing out that drivers also had to load up their tanks at a gantry at the terminal, which was a skilled job.

Government pleas for drivers to stop filling their cars “when they don’t need it” have fallen on deaf ears so far, as long queues formed at forecourts, forcing operators to ration supplies.

But Mr Eustice told broadcasters: “We always have a civil contingencies section within the army, they’re always on standby should they be needed. We don’t judge that is necessary at the moment.”

The minister continued the strategy of blaming panic-buying motorists, saying: “The most important thing is that people buy petrol as they normally would.

“There isn’t a shortage. There have been some shortages of HGV drivers getting petrol to forecourts but actually that is quite limited.

“The cause of these current problems is that panic-buying episode and the most important thing is for people to start buying petrol as they normally would.”

A ministerial meeting to discuss the situation was being chaired by Cabinet Office minister Stephen Barclay this afternoon, while meetings were also taking place at official level.

But Downing Street indicated that, while troops have been helping conduct HGV driver tests to speed new recruits into work, there were no imminent plans for soldiers to be put behind the wheel of tankers.

“At the moment, the army is being brought in to ensure we can test as many HGV drivers as possible, as that is where the bottlenecks are,” said Boris Johnson’s official spokesman.

“We will consider all options and we are taking all preparatory steps as necessary across government but currently the military involvement is specifically around testing. We are not currently bringing in the army to drive tankers, what we are doing as a responsible government is taking preparatory steps should further action be needed.”

PRA chairman Brian Madderson said: “There has been training going on in the background for military personnel.

“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,” he said, adding that was “a skilled job”.

Labour is calling for looser immigration rules to ease the crisis, arguing drivers queuing for hours for petrol “couldn’t care less” if lorry drivers are foreign.

Rachel Reeves, Labour’s shadow Chancellor, called for the independent Migration Advisory Committee to decide the issue – after a miserly 5,000 visas were issued to overseas drivers.

“Most people who are queuing up this morning, whether that’s in Brighton or Leeds or wherever, to fill up their car, they couldn’t care less whether the HGV driver that’s got the petrol to the forecourt is British or foreign,” she said.

“What they want to know is that they can fill up their car or their van and go about the business – so let’s plug those gaps.”

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