The Army is ready to help ease fuel supply problems after a fourth day of long queues and pump closures. Up to 150 military tanker drivers will prepare to deliver to forecourts which have run dry because of panic buying.
The surge in demand came amid fears a driver shortage would hit fuel supply – which is plentiful at refineries. Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said: “We are starting to see panic buying moderate with more grades of fuel available at more petrol stations.”
The UK is estimated to be short of more than 100,000 lorry drivers – causing problems for a range of industries, including food suppliers and supermarkets, in recent months.
The government has said people needlessly buying fuel has led to queues at many petrol stations, with fuel running out in some places.
Motoring group the RAC said the price of a litre of unleaded petrol had risen by a penny since Friday to an eight-year high. It added it was aware a small number of retailers were hiking prices amid the soaring demand.
Meanwhile, there are mounting calls for key workers, such as health and social care staff, to receive priority access to fuel where it is available.
Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng said the move to place the Army on standby was a “sensible, precautionary step” and if troops had to be deployed, they would temporarily “provide the supply chain with additional capacity” to ease the pressure caused by increased fuel demand.
Journalists have been told that 75 military drivers are on standby initially, and another 75 could be added if needed. They require up to five days of specialised training.
Huw Merriman, a Conservative MP and chairman of the transport select committee, said readying the army was a “good example” of ministers trying to use as many levers at their disposal as possible, and would be used as a “last resort” if the situation did not stabilise in the next couple of days.
But Mr Merriman also said the industry must explain how it planned to fix long-standing driver shortages rather than having the government constantly step in.
“These problems have been there for years because the average age of the driver is 55 years old, they’re retiring, and the industry has not made this job attractive. For too long, working conditions have been poor, and those that are willing to tolerate it have been from abroad.”
He said Brexit and other issues meant it was now “more attractive” for foreign drivers to work closer to home, and that the situation would only improve with better treatment of drivers.
The government has also authorised an extension to special driver licences that allow drivers to transport goods such as fuel.
ADR licences due to expire between 27 September and 31 December will have their validity extended until 31 January 2022, without refresher training or exams.
Labour said the latest response to the fuel crisis was “an admission of failure” and that asking the Army to step up was “a sticking plaster”.
Leading fuel companies, including BP and Shell, have sought to reassure the public that supplies remain unaffected at source. In a joint statement, they said that given “many cars are now holding more fuel than usual” they expected demand would “return to its normal levels in the coming days”.
Temporary visas lasting until Christmas Eve for 5,000 foreign fuel tanker and food lorry drivers, and 5,500 poultry workers, have also been announced.
But Richard Walker, managing director of supermarket Iceland, told journalists the visas would not begin until mid-October, adding: “I don’t know who would give up a full-time job in Europe for a matter of weeks.”
Nearly one million drivers qualified to drive heavy goods vehicles are being encouraged to rejoin the sector, and some 3,000 new recruits are expected to undertake short, intensive driving courses.
Factors including Brexit, the pandemic, pay levels and an aging workforce have all contributed to a shortage of lorry drivers.
After the UK left the European Union, many European drivers went back to their home countries, or decided to work elsewhere because of the additional border bureaucracy and the impact it had on their income.
The pandemic also prompted many foreign drivers to return home and led to a huge backlog in HGV driver exams. Driver shortages have also been seen in EU countries, including Germany and Poland.