UK urges public calm over shut fuel stations

·4 min read

Britain on Friday urged the public not to panic-buy fuel, as some petrol stations closed pumps due to a lack of tanker delivery drivers, adding to the government's growing list of woes and stoking consumer fears of worse to come before Christmas.

The Road Haulage Association, a sector body, said driver shortages caused by the pandemic and Brexit had created a "perfect storm", as calls mounted on ministers to take swift action.

"We're running on empty," The Sun tabloid warned on its front page, after weeks of increasing supply chain issues have left some supermarket shelves bare.

For older Britons, it evoked the dark days of the 1970s, when energy supply problems led to a three-day working week and fuel rationing, amid repeated strikes and high inflation.

It was also reminiscent of late 2000, when people protesting over high fuel prices blockaded oil refineries, bringing the country to a virtual standstill for weeks.

However, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps insisted there was no fuel shortage, and promised the government would get more lorry drivers to deliver stock.

"The advice would be to carry on as normal," Shapps told Sky News after a number of UK petrol stations run by BP and ExxonMobil-owned Esso were forced to close.

Shell said it had seen "increased demand" and was adapting its delivery schedules, as queues built up on petrol station forecourts and some types of fuel ran out.

At Hildenborough in southeast England, a BP petrol station was closed entirely and its pumps wrapped in plastic.

"Sorry we're out of fuel. We are working hard to fix this," signs read.

At least 50 of BP's 1,200 service stations were out of at least one type of fuel, The Times reported, while BP told AFP a "handful of sites" had temporarily closed.

- 'Supply pressure' -

Industry insiders said the lack of fuel deliveries was confined to southeastern England and appeared to be temporary, but was part of a wider problem.

BP blamed "industry-wide driver shortages across the UK".

Gordon Balmer, of the Petrol Retailers Association, cited "supply pressure from a lack of trained HGV (heavy goods vehicle) drivers," despite demand at 92 percent of pre-pandemic levels.

Experts and business leaders say Brexit and the pandemic have cut the number of truck drivers working in Britain, hitting supply chains in sectors from food to building supplies.

Many drivers who have left Britain were from eastern Europe, and returned home due to the global health crisis or to avoid falling foul of tougher immigration rules.

A similar situation has affected seasonal fruit pickers, despite a government visa waiver scheme.

"We're 100,000 drivers short at the moment," including "20,000 European drivers... who have left the country because of Brexit", RHA spokesman Rod McKenzie told BBC television.

- Don't blame Brexit -

"Since Brexit has happened there's been a shortage of labour across all industries," said Shane Kenneally, 38, who runs a landscaping business, as he pulled into a west London filling station only to find there was no fuel.

"This should have been thought about but this government has always not thought ahead."

Shapps, though, denied Brexit was to blame, calling critics "wrong" and highlighting similar issues affecting EU countries.

His department recently announced an overhaul for HGV driving tests to get more drivers behind the wheel as soon as possible.

The government has been facing a separate crisis over carbon dioxide stocks vital to the food and drink industry, due to a spike in wholesale gas prices.

But while saying he was "ruling nothing out", Shapps rebuffed industry calls to add truck drivers to a special list of industries suffering labour shortages, to make it easier for EU citizens to obtain work visas.

He said he preferred to "get those people back in" to driving who had been put off the job by lower pay offered when European workers were plentiful.

Britain was also keen to "entice" back European truck drivers who have gained the necessary status to work in the UK but are currently overseas, he added.

The Times reported the government could draft in the army to deliver fuel and that ministers had discussed putting soldiers on standby.

But Shapps said: "Probably that's not the solution in terms of just sheer numbers."

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