Boris Johnson has rejected pleas to give health and care workers priority access to fuel, despite warnings that leaving them stuck in queues at forecourts will put lives at risk.
Breaking his silence on the crisis after five days of pumps running dry, the prime minister insisted the situation was improving and called on motorists to stop panic-buying petrol.
But retailers said more than one-third of independent petrol stations remained empty, and Mr Johnson indicated that emergency measures will be needed until Christmas and beyond to keep supply chains running not only for fuel but other essential supplies too.
Up to 300 troops are now on standby in Operation Escalin after the defence secretary, Ben Wallace, signed off the request for military assistance.
It came after the government announced on Monday that the armed forces may be called on to drive tankers as a “precautionary step” if fuel supply problems persisted.
Industry figures have warned that petrol stations could see disruption last for up to a month even if people stop panic-buying petrol and diesel, The Times reported.
Transport secretary Grant Shapps became the first government minister to admit that Brexit was a factor in creating the fuel crisis, which the PM has tried to blame on a surge in demand globally as the world emerges from the Covid pandemic.
After speaking with haulage industry representatives on Tuesday, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said they were “beyond frustrated” at the government’s “half-baked” response to the crisis.
He called for immediate action to give key workers – including health and care staff – priority when filling up on fuel.
Sir Keir also said temporary visas offered by ministers to overseas HGV drivers should be extended from three to six months, after a lukewarm response from European truckers, who one EU union leader said “will not go to the UK for a short-term visa to help the UK get out of the s*** they created for themselves”.
Labour’s shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth told BBC Radio 4’s World at One: “If doctors and nurses and midwives and care assistants can’t get to the bedsides of their patients, then people will be left stranded, people will be left in the most desperate of circumstances, some people could end up losing their lives.”
As ministers met to monitor the ongoing shortages, government sources said data indicated the situation was improving. They pointed to figures showing that 16 per cent of petrol stations were fully supplied on Tuesday, compared to 10 per cent the previous day.
The Petrol Retailers Association (PRA), which represents nearly 5,500 of the UK’s 8,000 stations, said there were “early signs that the crisis at pumps is ending”, with around 37 per cent of sites running out of fuel, compared to two-thirds on Sunday.
Executive director Gordon Balmer said: “With regular restocks taking place, this percentage is likely to improve further over the next 24 hours.”
And Mr Johnson said: “We’re now starting to see the situation improve, we’re hearing from industry that supplies are coming back onto the forecourts in the normal way.
“I would just really urge everybody to just go about their business in the normal way and fill up in the normal way when you really need it and things will start to improve.”
But asked if he would introduce a priority scheme for key workers, he said only: “I understand why people say that but with the situation now stabilising and things getting better on the forecourts the best thing is ... we stabilise it in the normal way.”
Mr Johnson has been criticised for failing to speak out about the huge queues on forecourts – in the way that Tony Blair led the fightback against a similar crisis two decades ago.
He offered sympathy to drivers “worried about their journeys” and unable “to see their loved ones”, saying: “I know how frustrating and infuriating it must have been.”
The Queen’s Nursing Institute added its voice to calls for priority to be given to health and care workers.
In a letter to Mr Johnson, it said: “Patient visits are being cancelled and patients are at risk of being left without the care they need, at the time they need it. This is unacceptable.”
Dr David Wrigley of the British Medical Association said: “I know many of my health and social care working colleagues will be getting into the car this morning, nervously looking at the fuel dial and wondering if they’ve got enough fuel to do their day-to-day work,” he said.
“We can’t be waiting two or three hours in a queue for fuel when we have patients to see.”
Homecare Association CEO Jane Townson said she had been appealing for assistance from the Department for Health since Friday, but had been told only that the situation was being considered.
“We want essential workers, including home care workers, to have access to fuel. We need that now. We need the government to acknowledge that there are risks to the health and well-being of older and disabled people,” Ms Townson said.
Speaking at Labour’s annual conference in Brighton, Sir Keir said it was time for the PM to act.
“The government has reduced the country to chaos as we track from crisis to crisis and the government is not gripping this,” he told the BBC.
“I spoke to the haulage sector this morning to the businesses that are absolutely in the middle of this, and they are beyond frustrated – and these are their words.
“They said it’s a government that is denying there’s a problem, then blaming somebody else, and then coming up with a half-baked plan.”
Demanding action on key worker prioritisation and visas, Sir Keir said: “This problem was predictable and predicted and the government has absolutely failed to plan.”
Mr Johnson repeated government claims that panic-buying had been triggered by hauliers’ representatives leaking “misleading” details of a private meeting on supply problems caused by a 100,000 shortfall in HGV driver numbers.
He insisted that the answer was not a return to “low-wage, low-skill immigration”, but should involve higher pay to help fill vacancies.
“What we want to do is make sure that we have all the preparations to get through to Christmas and beyond not just in supplying the petrol stations but all parts of our supply chain,” said the prime minister.
“You’re seeing the global economy really sucking in a huge amount of demand at the moment for gas, for lorry drivers. There are shortages across the world, it’s affecting countries across the world but we’ve got to make sure that we have everything in place as the recovery continues and that’s what we’re doing.”
Frontline workers revealed the disruption forecourt queues are causing to their ability to do their jobs.
Beatrice Hamujuni-Smith, who runs a home care service, told The Independent that carers were “busy looking for fuel” over the weekend instead of working.
The director of IRC Care Services in Surrey said she was in the office until 9pm on Monday trying to organise my troops to see if we can still cover the most vulnerable people”.
And Shaleeza Hasham, of CHD Care at Home, said there had been an “enormous” impact on care workers.
“Many of our carers are unable to get enough fuel to make their rounds as most petrol stations are limiting them to £30,” she said. “Carers can do up to 100 miles per day so these restrictions mean that they are having to fuel up more often as they cannot fill their tanks.
“We look after extremely vulnerable individuals, some of whom cannot even get out of bed without support or assistance, and the situation is proving extremely difficult and stressful. Being unable to get to clients who depend on us just isn’t an option.”
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