Fuel supply: Minister blames empty petrol pumps on unnecessary purchases

By Joseph Lee

BBC News

image source, PA Media

image captionCars lined up for fuel in Stanwell, Surrey, but in many other places forecourts have shut after pumps ran dry

People buying fuel when they do not need it are the cause of queues at petrol stations and empty pumps, the environment secretary has said.

George Eustice said there was “plenty of petrol” and urged people to buy it in the way they usually do.

There were no plans at the moment to bring in the Army to drive tankers, he said.

Meanwhile, doctors and home care staff have called for essential workers to be given priority for fuel.

The Petrol Retailers Association, which represents nearly 5,500 of the UK’s 8,000 filling stations, warned on Sunday that up to two-thirds of outlets were out of fuel, with the rest of them “partly dry and running out soon”.

But Mr Eustice said the UK’s fuel supply was at normal levels and the fears of disruption which had led to panic buying over recent days were unfounded.

“The only reason we don’t have petrol in forecourts is because people are buying petrol when they don’t need it,” he said.

He said the lack of HGV drivers would have been “entirely manageable” if it were not for the reaction to media coverage about a limited number of forecourt closures.

“Things will calm down. Those who are anxious – many of them will have filled up their cars with petrol now and things will then return to normal.”

Mr Eustice said there were always civil contingency plans involving the Army but it was not thought necessary to call them in at the moment.

Downing Street denied that the government was blaming the public, saying: “We completely understand people’s anxiety. That’s why we’re doing everything possible to reassure people that stocks are secure.”

Many in government are hoping this situation begins to resolve itself.

They believe many people worried about shortages have already filled up their tanks – so the situation may start to die down.

But if we continue to see queues at petrol stations, there will be significant pressure for action.

We know the new visas for HGV drivers aren’t an overnight fix.

So the option of sending the Army to drive tankers to forecourts is being kept on the table.

If it happens, it would be based on no-deal Brexit planning – which officials have been dusting off in recent days.

Ministers are meeting this afternoon to discuss further measures.

Brian Madderson, chairman of the Petrol Retailers Association, said the industry had problems with a shortage of HGV drivers but it only became a “critical situation” when a submission by BP to the cabinet was leaked, sparking widespread coverage and panic buying.

“One of our members yesterday received a tanker at midday and by late afternoon the entire tanker had disappeared into people’s cars,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

Mr Madderson said that customers themselves could solve the problem of pumps running dry.

“If they start buying in their normal quantities, £20 worth, 20 litres to fill up every week, we could see by the end of this week some return to normality – it won’t be perfect, but some return,” he said.

image source, Reuters

image captionQueues began forming again outside this London petrol station on Monday morning

Meanwhile, the lack of fuel in some forecourts has led to calls from the British Medical Association, the Royal College of Nursing and the UK Homecare Association for healthcare staff and essential workers to be given priority access.

BMA chairman Dr Chaand Nagpaul said: “As pumps run dry there is a real risk that NHS staff won’t be able to do their jobs and provide vital services and care to people who urgently need it.”

The UK Homecare Association said people had been left waiting for carers at home because staff have been caught in queues for petrol.

Ambulances have their own fuel pumps in their depots and their supplies are expected to be prioritised, however.

The shortage of lorry drivers has caused problems for a range of industries in recent months, from supermarkets to fast food chains.

More on the lorry driver shortage

The government said on Sunday it would temporarily exempt fuel companies from competition law, as part of “long-standing” contingency plans to maintain supplies, allowing them to target supplies at areas most in need.

On Saturday, the government also announced it would offer temporary visas, lasting until Christmas Eve, to 5,000 foreign fuel tanker and food lorry drivers and 5,500 poultry workers in a bid to limit disruption in the build up to Christmas.

Other measures include sending nearly one million letters to drivers who hold an HGV licence – to encourage them back into the industry – and plans to train 4,000 people to become HGV drivers.

image captionA survey from earlier this year suggests a number of reasons for the driver shortage

Elizabeth de Jong, director of policy for Logistics UK, told Today that it would be “days, possibly a couple of weeks” before the visa applications were open.

She said the industry had wanted more visas to be available and for a longer time, but she said the key issue now was to make them attractive to drivers, which was likely to mean offering good wages.

The UK had lost 72,000 drivers between the second quarter of 2019 and the same period in 2021, Ms de Jong said – partly due to people returning to the EU after Brexit.

At the same time, she said the pandemic had disrupted testing for HGV licences, making it harder to replace the lost drivers.

But Mr Eustice denied that Brexit had been a major factor in the driver shortage.

“None of this is because we have left the European Union,” he said. “The biggest factor has been Covid.”

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