The British Government has told the media that the fuel shortage in the UK is about to end very soon. It has also deployed the military to help with the crisis, which has reached the 4th day of long queues and closed petrol stations. The transport secretary is convinced that a lot of fuel is being transferred to the vehicles but it will not be evident in the queues just yet. He also advised the citizens to avoid taking water bottles to the stations in order to get fuel. The average petrol price in the UK increased from 134.86 GBP to 135.19 GBP within a week.
The fuel crisis reportedly started around 24th September when British Petroleum (BP) issued a warning that it had to temporarily close some of its petrol stations because of the lack of truck drivers to supply fuel. The news caused panic across the country, leading to long queues at pumps due to fears that the fuel may run out. The most affected zones were urban areas whereas Northern Ireland remained unaffected.
Only a handful of filling sites were facing the supply chain issue at that time but the lack of qualified truck drivers already had caused problems in other industries such as supermarkets and food suppliers. The COVID-19 pandemic also forced many drivers to return to their home countries whereas others retired of old age. Moreover, some drivers went back due to Brexit bureaucracy, which had an impact on their income. The vacant positions were also not replaced because HGV (heavy goods vehicle) driver tests were not being carried out during COVID.
The government blamed the needless surge in demand as the reason for pumps running dry because there was plenty of fuel in the refineries. On the other hand, the British public has blamed the media for hyping up the initial problem of BP, which caused the people to panic buy.
The Government takes Steps to End Fuel Shortage in the UK
According to reports, the average filling per customer at the pump is around 25 GBP but fuel shortage in the UK has caused fills over 100 GBP. The British Medical Association has complained that healthcare workers cannot afford to wait in lines while they have a duty towards patients. There were calls to give priority access to these key workers so there can be no disruptions in health and medical services. The government came up with a national emergency plan to control the supply and demand related to petrol.
The UK is reportedly short of more than 100,000 drivers which has raised concerns that the issue will take a longer time to resolve. Currently, 150 Military tanker drivers will provide the missing capacity to the supply chain and 150 more could arrive if required. They will need training for which 20 military personnel will help with HGV testing.
Prioritizing Key Workers
Although there is an in-house availability of fuels to the ambulances the workers getting to work from their homes or visiting a patient anywhere has been a problem.
The government’s national emergency plan confirmed that in the case of a severe crisis, emergency and key workers will be given more priority by the filling stations. However, the government’s plans were not as rigid as they were with the schools during the pandemic. According to reports, it allowed the children of critical health workers to attend school in March 2021 while the rest of the students were off due to the pandemic.
The UK government does have the power to limit fuel access for selected individuals and also set timings for fuel stations but right now it is not implementing such measures.
Some petrol pumps have indecently introduced a 30 GBP cap on the amount of fuel one consumer can get. The chairman of the Petrol Retailers Association (PRA) has raised concerns that it could cause frequent conflicts between the staff and the consumers.
Suspension of Competition Laws
The government has also temporarily suspended competition laws, allowing companies to work together in providing services to areas in dire need. Restrictions on the working hours of drivers have also been lifted, meaning they can run an extra hour to meet supply chain demands. It also previously announced that around 5000 foreign truck and food lorry drivers, and 5500 poultry workers will receive temporary visas. Reportedly, around 3000 new recruits are expected to start intensive driving courses very soon.
The government has also authorized an extension to special driver licenses to allow drivers to transport fuel and other goods. Those licenses which were due to expire in September 2021 have also been extended to January 2022 without any test.
Critics have raised concerns about drivers supplying dangerous goods without licenses. They have called the government actions moderate as compared to the tools available to the ministers. Moreover, the measures to restrict and prioritize fuel among different groups, are still not in use.
What is Causing the Truck Driver Shortage
There is a long-standing shortage of truck drivers not only in the UK but also across Europe. This is why the government’s offer of providing temporary work visas for drivers only to cover the fuel shortage in the UK is not generating much enthusiasm in the EU. Critics argue that drivers might need something more than visas and salaries.
The problem persisted in the UK and EU before the pandemic even started. In 2019, 24% of the trucker positions were vacant in the UK, and 20, 21, and 22% remained unfilled in Spain, Czech Republic, and Poland respectively. Then the lockdown forced more workers out of jobs and recovery was not easy as companies struggled to fill the positions after the economy reopened. Then came Brexit and made the deal more Next came the Brexit deal which made working in the UK more unattractive for the EU nationals particularly because of the much lower value of the pound (against the Euro) than before. Furthermore, demanding work conditions made the bad situation worse due to which young workers avoided the industry and others started retiring.
It means that blaming panic buying will not solve the problem of the driver shortage, addressing the working conditions will. Trade unions officers have reiterated the concerns of truck drivers that they were not being treated well and cited lack of respect from higher-ups as the major reason for leaving this profession.