The last week of September opened to long queues at petrol stations in the UK as panicked motorists rushed to fill tanks amid fears of a fuel shortage. However, the British government has assured that there are ample stocks of fuel and that the crisis is due to an unavailability of truck drivers. That in turn is officially being blamed on the Covid-19 pandemic that has affected the movement of people across borders, although the view held widely among the opposition parties and the British public is that problem is all due to Brexit. Here’s what you need to know.
How Bad Is The Crisis?
The British government and its ministers have been at pains to assure the public that there is no shortage of fuel and the country is well-stocked on the essential item. However, the scene outside fuel stations was of long lines of cars and placards announcing the unavailability of fuel.
Petroleum major BP, which operates more than 1,000 fuel stations in Britain, said nearly a third of its stations had run out of the two main grades of fuel on September 26 with reports saying that people have resorted to panic buying even as the government is urging calm and asking motorists to go about things as they would have normally.
The shortage at petrol stations has continued for at least three days over the weekend and BP said it had cut deliveries to about 90 per cent of its fuel stations so as to ensure that supplies were distributed more evenly.
“With the intense demand seen over the past two days, we estimate that around 30 per cent of sites in this network do not currently have either of the main grades of fuel," BP said in statement.
Shell, another major supplier, too reported a shortage of some grades of fuel.
Why Is It Being Blamed On Truckers?
While worldwide fuel prices are at their highest levels in more than two years, the government and oil companies in the UK have blamed the current crisis on a lack of drivers.
UK is said to be facing an acute crunch of lorry drivers with industry sources saying there is a shortfall of close to 100,000 operators. “About 25,000 HGV (heavy goods vehicle) drivers from the EU left during 2020 and did not return, and there is a backlog of 40,000 waiting to take their HGV tests," The Guardian said, adding that the “shortage is compounded by the need for a separate qualification needed to deliver hazardous substances".
Truckers’ and cargo handlers’ bodies have said that the problem has deep roots. “The average age of a truck driver in the UK is 57, every day this problem is just getting worse as more and more retire,” said an official of the the Road Haulage Association.
To begin with, it is not the most attractive career choice, and “driving in the UK is seen as even less attractive than it is on the continent because of the lack of specialised facilities including toilets, showers and canteens", the Guardian said.
Further, Brexit is being seen as a trigger for the crisis even though the government is blaming it squarely on the Covid-19 pandemic.
What Has Brexit Got To Do With It?
Brexit, or the UK’s formal withdrawal from the European Union (EU), which took effect in January last year means that new immigration rules are now in place in the country that no longer allow workers from EU countries to live and work visa-free in the UK.
Opposition Labour Party leader Keir Starmer is said to have slammed the Conservative government for failing to foresee the shortage of workers following Brexit, which has affected multiple sectors of British economy, including the farming and food processing industry.
“This is a complete lack of planning… Just one consequence (of Brexit) was there was going to be a shortage of HGV drivers. That was predictable" he told the BBC.
However, the government has maintained that the shortage of truck drivers is due to the pandemic and the run on stations is driving the fuel shortage.
The government said Britain had “ample fuel stocks… But like countries around the world, we are suffering from a temporary Covid-related shortage of drivers needed to move supplies around the country," it said.
What Is The British Govt Doing To End The Crisis?
Plans have been announced to issue at least 5,000 temporary visas for truck drivers to tide over the haulier shortfall, although reports said it is a solution that the British government would have reluctantly embraced, given that it can be seen as an acknowledgement that Brexit was poorly handled.
Terming the present crisis a “manufactured situation", UK transport secretary Grant Shapps said truckers’ associations are “desperate to have more European drivers undercutting British salaries".
Following Brexit, the British government has sought to wean domestic companies off their reliance on cheaper labour from the continent, but experts say that the workers who have left the country cannot be replaced overnight.
“We are moving to a high wage, high-skilled economy and businesses will need to adapt with more investment in recruitment and training to provide long-term resilience," a spokesperson in the British PM’s office was quoted as telling BBC.
Industry leaders are said to have warned that the temporary visas for truck drivers is a “short-term fix" and that the labour crisis will be get exacerbated ahead of Christmas. The UK government said it is also handing out 5,500 temporary visas to poultry workers “to avoid any potential further pressures on the food industry during this exceptional period".
In the meantime, to quickly build up a domestic workforce of truck drivers, the government is expediting tests and even bringing in the defence ministry to help with training. Reports said that plans are afoot to train 4,000 people as HGV drivers with the help of examiners from the Ministry of Defence.