British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is facing calls to enlist the army to help ease a truck driver shortage that has crippled gas stations across the country.
Drivers have been lining up for hours to fill up and thousands of gas stations have been forced to close after running out of fuel. BP said 30 per cent of its 1,200 outlets had run out of gas and the EG Group, which operates about 400 stations, has introduced a £30 limit. The Petrol Retailers Association, which represents 5,500 independent operators, said around two-thirds of its members sold out of gas over the weekend.
“We need some calm,” Gordon Balmer, the executive director of the PRA, said Monday. “Please don’t panic buy. If people drain the network then it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
The government has been scrambling for days to address the crisis, which shows no sign of abating. Over the weekend, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps announced a temporary visa scheme that would permit 5,000 truckers from Europe to work in Britain for three months. On Monday the government also suspended competition rules to allow gas dealers to share information and co-ordinate deliveries.
Mr. Shapps has also sent out letters to nearly one million retired truckers and drivers who left the industry recently, encouraging them to return to work. “If you are no longer working in this sector, we would like to take this opportunity to ask you to consider returning,” the letter said. “There are fantastic HGV driving opportunities in the logistics industry and conditions of employment and pay have been improving across the sector.”
Government ministers have insisted that there is no fuel shortage and implored people to stop the frenzied buying. “The most important thing is that people just buy petrol as they normally would,” Environment Secretary George Eustice said Monday. “The cause of these current problems is panic buying.”
On Monday a group of major oil companies, including Shell, BP and Exxon Mobile, also tried to calm consumers. “There is plenty of fuel at UK refineries and terminals, and as an industry we are working closely with the government to help ensure fuel is available to be delivered to stations across the country,” the companies said in a joint statement. “We would encourage everyone to buy fuel as they usually would.”
But that has done little so far to slow the stampede to the pumps. On Monday it was still hard to find many gas stations around London that were open; some had been dry since Friday. The few stations that had gas were overwhelmed with lines of cars, and there have been reports of fist-fights and shouting matches as tempers flared. Brian Madderson, chairman of the PRA, told the BBC that one gas station received a tanker delivery at noon and within hours all of the gas had been sold.
The head of the British Medical Association expressed concern that some health care workers might not be able to get to work, and there have been fears that ambulance services could be impacted.
London Mayor Sadiq Khan urged Mr. Johnson to call in the army to ease the supply pressure. “We’ve got to get the army in as soon as possible,” Mr. Khan said. “The reality is the army has the logistics experience and the experience to come in as soon as possible.”
Mr. Eustice said there were no plans yet to involve the military, but there have been reports that some soldiers have begun training for gas deliveries. “We always have a civil contingencies section within the army on standby – but we’re not jumping to that necessarily at the moment,” he said.
The lack of truck drivers has been building for months, largely because of the pandemic and Brexit. COVID-19 restrictions have put tens of thousands of driving tests on hold, and Britain’s departure from the European Union has cut off the free-flow of truckers from the EU. While other European countries have faced similar driver shortages, Britain has been hit much harder.
Grocery stores and some fast-food chains experienced delivery problems this summer, but the situation worsened last week when BP announced that some of its gas stations would have to close. That caused a rush of gas buying, which has only compounded the problem.
The Road Haulage Association, which represents the trucking industry, has estimated that Britain is short more than 100,000 drivers. That compared with a shortage of around 60,000 before the pandemic. The association also said the country used to rely on about 60,000 drivers from the EU, but most have returned home because of Brexit. Luring them back with the promise of a temporary work visa won’t be easy.
The visa scheme “will not make any material impact in 2021 as it is simply too late,” said Richard Burnett, the RHA’s chief executive. “It’s unlikely the U.K. will get more than a few weeks from any overseas trucker, once they have applied, been granted permission and found somewhere to live.”
In a sign of just how desperate companies have become to find truck drivers, some are offering salaries of more than £70,000, or $121,000. That’s roughly double the current pay scale. Supermarket chain Tesco is also offering drivers an £1,000 signing bonus, and online retailer Ocado has announced plans to spend £5-million on higher wages and bonuses.
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