Significant improvements across UK but scarcity remains in England

THERE HAS been a significant improvement in the supply of petrol and diesel fuel in northeast and southwest England, Yorkshire, Scotland and Wales, according to the latest government data, but supply issues remain in 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%.

Usually, the nationwide average is normally 43% but for the fourth day running this figure is sitting at 20%. That represents an improvement over the 10% figure witnessed last weekend, fuelling mass panic-buying.

UK fuel shortages by region

Aside from Northern Ireland, the whole of the UK was rated red on September 25-26 but yesterday (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.

Nonetheless, large parts of England, including London, the South East, East of England, East and West Midlands and the North West are still in the red.

Calming the situation

According to the Petrol Retailers Association (PRA), a body that represents around 5,500 filling stations nationally, 25% of its members reported running out of fuel on Wednesday compared with 67% on Sunday.

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.

Army drivers to transport fuel

On Tuesday (September 28) the Defence Secretary, Ben Wallace, approved the Prime Minister’s request for the army to remain on standby to help fuel reach filling stations if required. The decision to keep the army in reserve was taken at a cabinet meeting on Monday (September 27) at which ministers discussed, but ultimately decided against, an immediate deployment.

The decision not to deploy up to 150 military tanker drivers coincided with a statement from the fuel industry saying that it expected the situation to begin resolving itself in the coming days.

Government ministers including the Home Secretary Priti Patel, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps and Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng, reportedly met on Sunday, September 26, to discuss “Operation Escalin”, a plan developed during preparations for a no-deal Brexit that would see the army deployed to drive a reserve fleet of 80 fuel tankers.

Some, however, have expressed concern that deploying the army could be an unworkable situation. Speaking on the Today programme on BBC Radio 4 over the weekend, chairman of the PRA, 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, and the tanker drivers currently load their own tanks at the gantry at the terminals, and then most are providing the delivery to the forecourt.”

Madderson was unsure if army drivers would be able to complete the whole refilling process. While PRA members might be able to assist on their own sites, that may not always be the case.

“It’s not an absolute panacea,” Madderson said. “So, there is no one single lever that is going to be pulled by government and industry together which is going to sort this situation. It’s a matter of small levers, each contributing a little going forward.”

Petrol stations in UK warn of fuel supply issues as lorry driver shortage bites

Tensions run high at the 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 yesterday morning, 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 increasing from 135.87p on Friday to 136.59p on Sunday — 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 oil on Tuesday (September 28) hit $80 a barrel, its highest level 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 PRA said the supply was likely to improve over the next 24 hours and urged motorists to remain calm, and not abuse petrol retail staff.

“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.”

In a matter of days, large swathes of the nation have moved from red to amber, and some are soon set to go green.

Speaking to BBC Breakfast over the weekend, 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.”

The problem, caused by a national HGV driver shortage, has been greatly exacerbated by panic-buying. Even if panic-buying stops, however, it may take several weeks to fully restock all petrol stations. BP expects to experience problems well into October.

Efforts to ease the crisis

The government 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.

In a further effort to ease the fuel and wider supply chain crisis, the government announced that 5,000 foreign HGV drivers will be eligible for UK work visas for the period until Christmas Eve.

The announcement was largely greeted without enthusiasm, with the British Chamber of Commerce saying that the measures were the equivalent of “throwing a thimble of water on a bonfire.”

The Road Hauliers Association said that the move “barely scratches the surface”, and the announcement is likely to do little to attract a sufficient number of drivers to significantly ease the crisis considering that a general shortage of lorry drivers is a Europe-wide issue.

Hauliers report that the problem is caused by poor working conditions, long periods spent away from home and a return to the continent of some 14,000 drivers in the wake of Brexit and the coronavirus pandemic.

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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