UK fuel crisis threatens to hit essential services and industry

UK business & economy updates

UK medical workers and transport companies on Monday warned the fuel crisis threatened major disruption to essential services and industry as they demanded priority access to petrol and diesel following panic buying.

The scale of the crisis, with the majority of the UK’s 8,000 petrol stations drained of fuel, prompted the government to put troops on standby to help with deliveries.

The British Medical Association said healthcare staff reliant on cars risked being cut off from work, while taxi and courier companies said the acute fuel shortages posed significant disruption.

Dr Chaand Nagpaul, chair of the British Medical Association’s ruling council, said healthcare workers needed access to fuel “whether this is to get to hospitals, practices and other healthcare settings, or for ambulances to reach people in urgent need of care”.

He added that “as pumps run dry there is a real risk that NHS staff won’t be able to do their jobs . . . healthcare and essential workers must therefore be given priority access to fuel”.

Christina McAnea, general secretary of Unison, the UK’s largest public sector union, called for the government to use “emergency powers to designate fuel stations for the sole use of key workers” including medical staff, teachers and police.

David Brown, chair of National Courier and Despatch Association, a trade body, said delivery companies were turning down jobs and telling workers to stay at home because of a lack of certainty around fuel supplies.

“It has been difficult,” he added. “It has been frustrating for people who earn a living from driving.”

Liam Griffin, chief executive of Addison Lee, which runs a fleet of 4,000 cars in central London for courier and taxi services, said it was facing increasing “challenges”.

“As with every other operator in our industry, these challenges will become more significant without swift and decisive action to tackle the fuel shortage,” he added.

Industry bodies representing London’s black cabs and private-hire cars have called for the government to issue an emergency order to designate fuel stations only for “essential users”.

The government is coming under increasing pressure to get a grip on the crisis, which started with small-scale disruptions to fuel deliveries caused by a shortage of heavy goods vehicle drivers, before panic buying by motorists rapidly drained supplies.

An aerial view shows customers queueing in their cars to access an Asda petrol station in east London © Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP via Getty Images

Over the weekend the government waived aspects of competition law to allow energy companies to co-operate to restock petrol stations, and loosened visa restrictions on foreign HGV drivers.

Brian Madderson, chair of the Petrol Retailers Association, a trade body, said members reported between 50 and 90 per cent of independent sites were without fuel, with those that had been refilled quickly swamped by long lines of motorists.

“We’re still seeing panic buying at a rate faster than deliveries can go in,” he added.

Madderson said cities and other densely populated areas in England were the hardest hit.

A joint statement from the fuel industry co-ordinated by the government expressed some hope the situation would improve over this week.

“As many cars are now holding more fuel than usual, we expect that demand will return to its normal levels in the coming days,” said the statement from companies including BP, Royal Dutch Shell and other fuel distributors.

But one industry insider said that until the HGV driver shortage was resolved there was a risk of continued panic buying of fuel by motorists.

The consultant with extensive experience of petrol retailing said that unlike the fuel protests of 2000, when distribution recovered quickly once truck drivers ended a refinery blockade, there was an underlying labour market issue this time. 

“But this has the potential to rumble on for longer than normal, depending on how real the driver shortage issue is,” he added.

Ministers met on Monday to examine the latest petrol station data and to consider whether further government action was needed.

A government spokesman said there was no shortage of fuel stocks in the country, adding it would keep working “closely with the industry”.

Two Whitehall officials confirmed that the army was on a state of high alert, with 150 troops ready to help with fuel distribution under contingency planning known in government as Operation Escalin.

Additional reporting by Daniel Thomas, Laura Hughes and Sarah Neville

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