Petrol panic

FROM A DISTANCE - Veronica Pedrosa - The Philippine Star

You would think there had been some sort of natural disaster or war had broken out at first glance. The classic signs of civil unrest were there. For days people have been joining long lines at gas stations, breaking into fights over queue-jumping, threatening workers at the pumps and hoarding petrol in water bottles.

“Afternoon, anyone happen to know if any garages have petrol now? Thank you,” was a typical message on the neighborhood social platform “Next Door” over the weekend. It was a bit more dignified than some other customers who took to tailing tankers in their hunt for petrol, waiting outside refineries for petrol tankers.

Across Great Britain people totally ignored government assurances that there was no shortage of petrol and no need to panic and queued in even greater numbers.

Political commentators joked that it was a perfect British crisis because it wasn’t that serious and involved queueing.

It all started late last week, when the oil firm BP told the public it would have to “temporarily” close a handful of its petrol stations because of a lack of lorry drivers. Long queues started to build up outside stations across Great Britain over the weekend, amid fears that petrol might run out. Urban areas have been hardest hit, while Northern Ireland has been unaffected.

At a garage in South London, the manager said customers had attempted to queue jump just to abuse staff, so he was forced to guide a queue of around a dozen vehicles out of the road to prevent them blocking traffic.

By Monday the government had deployed 200 military personnel to start driving lorries to get supply chains working again. The government and retailers say there is enough fuel at UK refineries, but a shortage of drivers had slowed down the transport to some petrol stations.

It still wasn’t clear if the situation has been properly resolved. The chairman of the Petrol Retailers Association said that fuel shortages are getting worse in some parts of the country, in particular London and the south-east. However he said there was a “distinct improvement” in Scotland, the north of England and parts of the Midlands.

However, reports of doctors, teachers and social care workers being unable to reach work sparked widespread calls for the Prime Minister to  prioritize fuel for essential workers on Tuesday. One carer told me that she had been left stranded after several fruitless attempts to refuel her car had left her with an empty tank.

A friend told me it was “a storm in a teacup that also exposed serious problems.”

The key issue is there aren’t enough drivers to supply petrol. There’s an estimated shortage of more than 100,000 HGV (heavy goods vehicle) drivers and petrol is only the latest industry to be hit. The lack of drivers has caused problems for a whole range of industries, including groceries and fast food chains.

Fuel tanker drivers need additional safety qualifications on top of their HGV licence to be able to transport petrol and other chemicals. After the UK left the European Union with Brexit, European drivers returned to their home countries or moved elsewhere, because working in the UK involved additional border bureaucracy, costing them in income. Then the pandemic hit and even more drivers went home, only a few came back. On top of all that, older drivers have retired and, due to COVID, there’s a huge backlog in issuing licenses.

Oil companies have stressed there is plenty of fuel available. They say that the shortage is being caused by “temporary spikes in customer demand” or, as PRA chairman Brian Madderson put it, “panic buying, pure and simple.” The government has claimed media coverage has inflamed the situation.

Not so, according to the opposition Labour party.  The shadow Home Secretary said the crisis “is to do with the government’s complete and utter incompetence. It is to do with the government’s handling of Brexit and it is to do with the government’s failure to plan over recent months. The blame lies squarely with them, it lies with no one else.”

“This fuel crisis is a direct result of the decision to exit the EU in the way that Boris Johnson has done. There are no queues for petrol in France, or Germany, or Spain at this moment… The truth is we came out of the customs union and those drivers are now subject to tariffs and, surprise, surprise, they’re not coming here because they’re not getting paid as much.”

There was a hint of some gloating in mainland Europe. The leader of Germany’s Social Democrats, who came first in the country’s election on Sunday, made the link between Brexit and worker shortages, pointing out: “The free movement of labor is part of the European Union, and we worked very hard to convince the British to not leave the union. Now they decided different, and I hope they will manage the problems coming from that.”

The UK government now plans to offer three-month temporary visas to 5,000 EU lorry drivers to boost the flow of deliveries. It’s not going to work, according to representatives of drivers in Europe. Edwin Atema from the Federation of Dutch Trade Unions told BBC Radio 4: “The EU workers we speak to will not go to the UK for a short-term visa to help the UK get out of the s*** they created for themselves… Drivers from across Europe have completely lost all trust in this industry. Long before coronavirus and Brexit this industry was sick already, plagued by exploitation… which ended up with drivers voting with their feet and leaving.”

In Romania, the general secretary of the National Union of Road Transporters said:

“The UK seems to be experiencing a paradox. British citizens do not want to practice the job of truck driver, while at the same time they do not want other non-UK citizens to come to do this job.”

The story is far from over, with some experts and retailers warning that the shortages could impact supplies for Christmas. A political cartoon nicely summed up the mood in the UK with one person saying: “This isn’t the Brexit I voted for!” The other replies: “Funny, because this is the Brexit I voted against.”


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