What is causing the UK fuel shortages?

Even Grant Shapps concedes Brexit ‘a factor’ in chaos but is it solely to blame?

Joe Sommerlad
Friday 01 October 2021 11:53
Drivers queue for petrol in Birmingham amid continuing disruption

As panicked British drivers queue around the block to top up their tanks at petrol stations amid fears of a flash fuel crisis, many are asking whether we are witnessing the latest evidence of a back-firing Brexit in action.

The extent to which the situation is now easing appears to be a matter of dispute, with government ministers offering a much rosier assessment than that of petrol industry associations, as forecourt staff suffer “a high level of abuse” amid festering anger and resentment.

Transport secretary Grant Shapps did admit on Tuesday that Britain’s decision to withdraw from the European Union (EU) had been “a factor” in the chaos but, for the most part, Boris Johnson’s government and the fuel sector have been quick to downplay the problem, insisting there is no actual shortage of petrol and diesel reserves and that this is merely a short-term snafu caused by a lack of HGV drivers to make deliveries from distribution terminals to the pumps.

But Mr Johnson’s critics have been much more forthcoming in blaming the haulier shortage on Britain’s divorce from the administrative bloc, citing the estimated 25,000 European lorry drivers who were forced to return to the continent in the wake of Brexit curtailing the free movement of labour and introducing strict visa requirements.

Speaking to Times Radio on Tuesday morning, Labour’s shadow home secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds said the crisis “is to do with the government’s complete and utter incompetence. It is to do with the government’s handling of Brexit and it is to do with the government’s failure to plan over recent months. The blame lies squarely with them, it lies with no one else.”

Rachel Reeves, Labour’s shadow chancellor, was also in agreement, telling Sky News from the party conference in Brighton, that Brexit was “obviously a contributory factor… To deny that, I think, flies in the face of reality”.

Shadow justice secretary David Lammy likewise rammed home the message, at the risk of further alienating Leave voters in crumbling “red wall” constituencies, by declaring: “This fuel crisis is a direct result of the decision to exit the EU in the way that Boris Johnson has done. There are no queues for petrol in France, or Germany, or Spain at this moment… The truth is we came out of the customs union and those drivers are now subject to tariffs and, surprise, surprise, they’re not coming here because they’re not getting paid as much.”

Ex-Conservative MP and Remain campaigner Anna Soubry was equally emphatic when she pointed out during an interview with ITV’s Good Morning Britain on Monday that the snaking lines of traffic - and empty supermarket shelves - we are currently seeing were entirely unfamiliar on these shores prior to the 2016 referendum.

Mr Johnson’s enemies in Europe have also wasted little time in blaming Brexit for the disaster, with a gloating tone detectable in the words of former EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier when he said Britain’s current woes are “a direct and mechanical consequence of Brexit” and in those of France’s European affairs minister, Clement Beaun, who this week denounced “the intellectual fraud that was Brexit”.

Olaf Scholz, leader of Germany’s Social Democrats, the party that came first in the country’s election on Sunday, joined the dots to link Britain’s worker shortages to Brexit when he said: “The free movement of labour is part of the European Union, and we worked very hard to convince the British to not leave the union. Now they decided different, and I hope they will manage the problems coming from that.”

Europe’s newspapers have been scathing in their coverage of the UK’s supply chain disruption throughout the summer, with Germany’s Der Spiegel memorably labelling Britain: “The kingdom of empty shelves.”

Another German outlet, the TV station ARD, likened our present conditions to the notorious Winter of Discontent of 1978-79 while Spanish newspaper La Vanguardia compared post-Brexit Britain to “boycotted Cuba”.

Among those who know the realities of the road haulage industry best, the verdict has been arguably most damning of all.

Dismissing the UK government’s plan to offer three-month temporary visas to 5,000 EU lorry drivers to boost the flow of deliveries, Edwin Atema from the Federation of Dutch Trade Unions was brutally frank on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Monday.

“The EU workers we speak to will not go to the UK for a short-term visa to help the UK get out of the s*** they created for themselves,” he said. “Drivers from across Europe have completely lost all trust in this industry. Long before coronavirus and Brexit this industry was sick already, plagued by exploitation… which ended up with drivers voting with your feet and leaving.”

Radu Dinescu, general secretary of the National Union of Road Transporters in Romania, told the Associated Press that his fellow countrymen, who worked in the UK in large numbers before Brexit, now “prefer EU stability” and would be unlikely to take up the rather desperate new offer, favouring better paid jobs across France and Germany.

“The UK seems to be experiencing a paradox,” he said. “British citizens do not want to practice the job of truck driver, while at the same time they do not want other non-UK citizens to come to do this job.”

A 'No Fuel' sign attached to an empty petrol pump at a BP filling station in Manchester

While it seems undeniable that Brexit has played a significant role in the present crisis, the haulage industry estimates that the UK is actually short of as many as 100,000 lorry drivers, a situation it attributes to a perfect storm of the aforementioned exodus of foreign workers coinciding with coronavirus pandemic and an ageing workforce.

Lockdowns over the last 18 months, for instance, have meant that as many as 40,000 applicants to the DVLA in Swansea hoping to take a lorry driver’s test have been unable to do so, the backlog accounting for an even greater proportion of the shortfall than the Brexit-inspired departures.

However you choose to apportion the blame, alternative measures proposed to address the shortfall so far have included bringing retired drivers back into the workforce Dad’s Army-style (they are so far said to be “unmoved” by the prospect) and to relax the rules on immigration to allow more workers into the country to help out given that the 5,000 temporary visas are unlikely to prove sufficient.

While that makes obvious economic sense, as The Independent’s Sean O’Grady observes, such a gesture would also risk undermining “the Brexit the British voted for”.

Mr Johnson’s present solution to the crisis appears to be drafting in British Army soldiers to serve as tanker drivers, which, should it be implemented, would come into effect under Operation Escalin, a strategy originally drawn up to deal with complications from the aftermath of Britain’s EU withdrawal.

Surely doing so represents nothing less than a tacit admission that a worst-case scenario has now been realised.

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