GOVERNMENT plans to ease the current fuel crisis by granting 300 temporary visas to foreign tanker drivers have already hit a stumbling block with just 27 drivers taking up the offer.
“These schemes were launched because this is what industry said they needed,” one government source said. “But we’re yet to see the numbers promised coming through.”
While the fuel shortage is improving in most parts of the country, particularly in the Scotland, Wales and the north of England, yesterday about one in five petrol stations in London and the southeast were out of fuel. Experts believe the slow uptake could mean that the government will need to rely on army personnel to replenish supplies for a longer period than anticipated.
The government plans to find an extra 4,700 HGV drivers to ease the supply-chain crisis in the run up to Christmas, with a shortage of somewhere between 30,000 and 100,000 drivers, according to estimates.
Some in the haulage industry never expected the emergency visa plan to have a significant impact. Rod McKenzie, the director of policy at the Road Haulage Association said: “People don’t want to come unless it is a really attractive alternative. You don’t give up a well-paid job for a better-paid job if it will only last a few months.”
The association had previously said that the relaxation of visa rules by granting some 5,000 temporary visas — which would expire on Christmas Eve — to foreign lorry drivers “barely scratches the surface” when it came to tackling the wider HGV driver shortage; the British Chamber of Commerce likened the scheme to “throwing a thimble of water onto a bonfire.”
A general shortage of lorry drivers is a Europe-wide issue but the UK is the only country to face crisis at the petrol pumps. Hauliers report that some 14,000 drivers have left the UK as a direct result of Brexit and the coronavirus pandemic, though poor working conditions and low pay have meant a decline in numbers for years.
The military yesterday (October 4) began making deliveries to petrol stations as part of Operation Escalin, a plan created during preparations for a no-deal Brexit.
A hundred tanker drivers from the army and RAF were assisted by a hundred further military staff on navigation and other logistical issues, with the majority being deployed at fuel terminals near London and in the southeast.
The government’s initial agreement with the fuel industry will see the military assisting with deliveries for up to 31 days, though depending on the changing situation, this period could either be shortened or extended.
Current petrol supply situation
Generally, there has been a significant improvement in the supply of petrol and diesel to filling stations in northeast and southwest England, Yorkshire, Scotland and Wales, according to the latest government data, but supply issues remain in other parts of England.
The government has rated each region as red, amber or green according to fuel levels, where red indicates an average of below 20%.
Aside from Northern Ireland, the whole of the UK was rated red on September 25-26 but, by September 30, the government data resulted in the less worrying amber categorisation for Scotland, Wales, northeast England and Yorkshire and the Humber. It’s understood that Scotland is close to returning to green.
According to Gordon Balmer, executive director of the Petrol Retailers Association (PRA), a body representing 5,500 filling stations nationally, 86% of garages in Britain yesterday had fuel with 8% having run dry, mostly in the London area. It could, he said, still take a week or ten days for supply levels to return to normal.
Downing Street said fuel stocks had continued to improve over the weekend, with “more fuel being delivered than is being used. That’s been a sustained picture for a number of days now,” according to the Prime Minister’s official spokesperson.
Government calls for calm
Leaked government documents issued by the Cabinet Office’s Behavioural Insights Team urge councils to avoid using certain phrases in public when discussing the situation, according to the BBC.
The local authorities have been asked to avoid the term “panic buying” and use alternative phrases such as “filling up earlier than usual” and “changed patterns in demand” instead.
The classified documents also recommend avoiding language that blames “selfish” or “irrational” people for stocking up, as “Framing people buying excess fuel as ‘taking away from those who need it/the NHS etc.’ is likely to lead to them feeling like their freedom has been threatened, leading them to more readily engage in ‘panic buying’ behaviour.”
Prime Minister Boris Johnson continues to urge people to stop panic-buying, and to behave “in a normal way”.
Johnson’s assurances are echoed by sources in the fuel industry. James Spencer, managing director at Portland Fuel told the BBC:
“I would say logically the worst is behind us. A lot of people have filled up their tanks now, so you might actually see a dip in demand and the replenishment of fuel at petrol stations is a 24-hour, seven-days-a-week job, so as we speak the petrol stations are being replenished.”
The Transport Secretary, Grant Shapps, said: “We’re starting to see very tentative signs of stabilisation which won’t yet be reflected in the queues.”
The AA also urged motorists not to panic-buy amid ongoing reports and images of chaos at filling stations.
Tensions have run high at forecourts
The shortage of fuel has led to some heated exchanges at the petrol pumps, as drivers desperately try to fill their tanks.
One driver in Welling, southeast London, was filmed apparently pulling a knife on another motorist. The car then hit the man holding the knife, throwing him onto the bonnet. The assailant then proceeded to attack the car, kicking it and causing damage to the wing mirror. Both parties had departed the scene when the police arrived.
Elsewhere, one motorist was photographed emptying two 1.5-litre water bottles bought in the petrol station shop and filling them with fuel, a practice the Transport Secretary singled out as “dangerous and not helpful”.
Many drivers slept in their vehicles as they queued, in some cases for up to four hours. Motorists in Essex were seen following an oil tanker as it left its depot on a delivery run, while RNLI volunteers in Kent were abused by angry motorists as they filled up fuel cans for their boats.
Danny Altmann, a professor of immunology at Imperial College London told The Times that while trying to refuel he saw one motorist punching a security guard and “a mêlée of eight to ten men on the ground, punching and kicking.”
The impact on key workers
The situation has affected many key workers, leaving some unable to get to work including nurses, doctors and carers, which has led to the cancellation of medical appointments, including those for cancer patients.
Another profession badly hit is taxi driving. Speaking on BBC Radio 4 last week, Stephen McNamara of the Licensed Taxi Drivers Association said: “Twenty to thirty percent of our members were not at work yesterday and unable to get fuel to go to work. And a taxi driver without fuel is unemployed.”
McNamara called on the government to add taxi drivers to a list of essential users and designate specific filling stations for key workers.
One worker at a filling station in west London said that the four-pump garage had gone through 30,000 litres of fuel in two days — the amount it usually sells in a week.
The demand for fuel has led to a rise in prices with, according to the RAC, the average UK price per litre of petrol has increased to 136.8p, the highest seen since 2013, some eight years ago.
The RAC has warned that prices could increase further as retailers pass on the rising wholesale cost of fuel to motorists. The price of Brent crude oil yesterday hit $82 a barrel, its highest figure in some years.
Helen Callis, who has two garages at the end of her road in High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire, which have been empty for days, questioned the government line on supplies stabilising. “One has been empty since Sunday, the other had fuel yesterday but was out by 7pm,” she said. “As soon as there’s a delivery, chaos ensues.”
When will petrol stations have fuel again?
Gordon Balmer, executive director of the PRA said the supply was likely to improve and urged motorists to remain calm, and not abuse petrol retail staff.
According to the AA: “Forecourts are trying their best to manage queues and ensure there is plenty of fuel to go around,” he said. “We would urge the public to remember that fuel stocks remain normal at refineries and terminals, and deliveries have been reduced solely due to the shortage of HGV drivers.”
Speaking to BBC Breakfast, Edmund King, the association’s president said that the problem had been greatly exacerbated by “people going out and filling up when they really don’t need to.”
He said that the issue should resolve itself if drivers stick to filling up when required. There is “plenty of fuel at source,” he said, and prior to widespread panic buying the shortage had been a “localised problem”.
He added: “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. It’s not like the fuel crises in the past when the supplier was hit by strikes, etc.
“So, once people have filled up, they won’t travel more than they normally travel, so this strain on the system should ease up in the next few days.”
George Eustice, the Environment Secretary, said there is not a shortage of fuel and joined the AA in urging motorists to stop panic-buying, and return to their normal pattern of petrol and diesel refilling.
James Spencer of Portland Fuel said: “The original crisis — if you want to call it that — was caused by 25 to 30 petrol stations closing down near the south coast. It was never a particularly major crisis in the first place, obviously then there was the panic-buying, sales at forecourts went up by 500% over the weekend.”
In addition to the current supply crisis, one figure revealed this week by the Office of National Statistics indicates that the number of petrol stations in the UK has dropped by more than 1,000 — or around 22% — since 2011, a decline that certainly does little to shorten forecourt queues.
Reflecting the improving situation, Esso yesterday — October 4 — removed the £30 cap on buying fuel that it introduced ten days ago as panic-buying began.
Efforts to ease the crisis
In an effort to reduce pressure on the supply chain, the government last week announced an extension to truck drivers’ ADR licences, the licence that allows drivers to transport dangerous goods such as fuel. Licences due to expire between September 27 and December 31 will be extended until January 31, 2022, without refresher training or exams.
The Business Secretary, Kwasi Kwarteng, also announced a relaxation of competition laws with fuel companies temporarily excluded from the Competition Act 1998, allowing them to share information and optimise supply.
Gist, the logistics partner for Marks & Spencer, has opened an HGV training and testing centre in Spalding, Lincolnshire, to ensure that it has enough drivers for Christmas. It is recruiting up to 80 eligible class C drivers and provisional HGV licence holders.
Is there a fuel shortage in Europe?
According to research by logistics experts Transport Intelligence, Europe as a whole is facing a shortage of around 400,000 HGV drivers.
Poland currently has 124,000 fewer drivers than it needs, with Germany experiencing shortfalls of between 45,000 and 60,000. France needs another approximately 43,000 drivers. Spain, Italy, the Scandinavian countries and Ukraine are also badly affected.
However, EU HGV drivers can freely move and work between member states, so the situation has been manageable. There are no reports of fuel shortages in petrol stations or panic-buying in any other country.
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