UK fuel crisis: Measures branded ‘sticking plaster solutions’ as army deployed

The long-awaited images of military personnel driving fuel tankers follow almost two weeks of misery and chaos for British consumers. Panic buying of fuel amid the shortage of truckers has led to chaotic scenes across major cities with queues of drivers lining up outside gas stations. A perfect storm of labor shortages as a result of Brexit and the continued fallout of the COVID-19 crisis has exacerbated a whole range of supply chains.

The government has now also agreed to issue temporary visas to thousands of foreign truck drivers in an effort to relieve pressures on the supply chain over the coming months.

”Every little helps,” Rod McKenzie, Managing Director of the UK’s Road Haulage Association (RHA) told DW, ”but these are sticking plaster solutions when major surgery is required.”

‘I’ve lost a day’s living’

At the height of the crisis, DW witnessed queues of vehicles snaking out of gas stations. Such was the level of chaos in some areas, videos of all-out brawls at the pumps were splashed across the UK news media.

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”It’s been terrible,” taxi driver Barry Battams, 68, told DW.

”It’s just ridiculous really, how it’s got to this point,” he added, as he found himself at another empty East London gas station.

”People are going out at 6 a.m, at midnight, and there are still queues outside garages.”

”I have to hunt around for more fuel, otherwise, I can’t go to work … I’ve lost a day’s living.”

Challenges remain

In recent days, data showing an easing of pressure at the pumps in northern England and Scotland has bolstered government assertions that the crisis is easing.

But according to the Petrol Retailers Association (PRA), which represents almost 5,500 independent outlets, the situation in London and the South East remains ”challenging.”

In a survey of 25% of independent retailers conducted on Monday, it found that 20% in London and the South East were empty, while a further 18% only had one grade of fuel available.

While welcoming the provision of military drivers, the PRA stressed the crisis is not over yet.

”We are grateful for the support lent by the government through their provision of military drivers, although further action must be taken to address the needs of disproportionately affected areas,” Gordon Balmer, the PRA’s executive director said in a statement.

In total, some 200 military personal, half of them drivers, have been deployed to help speed up fuel replenishment.

Brexit and COVID effect: Driver shortages

Meanwhile, 5,000 visas have been offered to foreign drivers as part of the emergency program.

Some 300 of those are being offered to fuel drivers who will be able to come to the UK ”immediately” and stay until the end of March. The remaining 4,700 are intended for foreign food truck drivers from late October to the end of February.

But the RHA warned that the stop-gap measure fails to address the magnitude of the problem.

It estimates that the current shortfall stands at around 100,000 drivers. In part, McKenzie said, as a consequence of the UK leaving the European Union and the exodus of thousands of foreign workers.

But he described the pandemic and successive strict lockdowns as ”the biggest issue,” with resulting ramifications including restrictions on driver training and testing.

Taken together, they have compounded what he describes as a historic driver shortage, adding that there can be no quick fix.

”Bringing soldiers in to deliver fuel, that will help, but it is a short-term measure,” McKenzie said. ”And 5,000 visas for a handful of weeks is simply not enough to tackle the scale of the problem that we have.”

”We need to attract longer term a new generation of British lorry drivers who want to do the jobs and are fairly paid for doing it and have better conditions on the roads,” he added.

Turkeys not coming home for Christmas?

In tacit acknowledgment that disruption is set to continue, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has not ruled out further supply chain blockages in the months ahead.

Indeed, shortages of both fuel and general haulage drivers are expected to plague not just the petrol pumps, but wreak further havoc on supermarket shelves as well. Supply chain bottlenecks have affected deliveries of poultry, milk and medicine.

In an effort to save Christmas and ease another staffing gap pinch point, the government has announced that 5,500 foreign poultry workers will be granted visas from late October until the end of the year in the hope the UK can stave off a festive turkey shortage.

But industry bodies and the finance minister, Chancellor Rishi Sunak, have warned problems are likely to persist in the UK over the Christmas period.

The RHA’s Rod McKenzie is also pessimistic. ”It won’t be a normal Christmas in the sense that we won’t be able to get all the things that we are used to get all of the time,” he said.


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