Boris Johnson is preparing to draft in hundreds of soldiers to tackle the UK’s fuel crisis as at least half of petrol stations outside the motorway network have run out of fuel after Britons engaged in panic buying.
The prime minister will meet senior ministers and officials on Monday to examine the latest data following the disruption to fuel supplies caused by a scarcity of tanker drivers. One senior government insider said: “The situation in England is very bad.”
Johnson will consider using the army to drive tankers around the country, under contingency planning known as Operation Escalin.
Brian Madderson, chair of the Petrol Retailers Association, a trade body, said a survey of members on Sunday indicated 50 to 85 per cent of all independent service stations had now run dry, excluding motorway forecourts and some supermarket sites that had been given priority by oil companies.
Madderson told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme on Monday morning that supplies in Northern Ireland were still steady and that the problem was confined to the mainland, with concentrated urban areas suffering the most. He said that there had been training going on “in the background” for military personnel to drive tankers but cautioned that they might not possess all the skills, such as loading, needed to do the job.
The government announced on Sunday evening that it would temporarily exempt the energy industry — including producers, suppliers, hauliers and retailers — from the 1998 competition act, allowing companies to share information and prioritise deliveries to areas of greatest need.
Officials are receiving updates up to four times a day. But there was some hope in government that the panic buying had calmed by Saturday. Those with knowledge of the situation said that the best-case scenario was that disruption would clear within five days. “There is a crisis in data; we are trying to get a better picture on when the panic will pass,” one insider said.
Madderson said what had been a “manageable issue” of localised shortages at a small number of retail sites last week had quickly spiralled after media reports of supply problems had set off panic buying by motorists, with some members stating demand had surged “500 per cent above the normal level” on Saturday, quickly draining forecourt fuel tanks.
The UK has about 8,000 petrol stations, the majority run by independent retailers, some of whom operate franchises using the big oil companies’ brands.
Madderson told the Financial Times that while the short-term issue was “panic buying”, the root cause was “a government that’s been dragging its feet over the issue of the number of haulage drivers on the ground”.
Ministers bowed to business pressure on Saturday and announced they would issue temporary visas to 5,000 foreign heavy goods vehicle drivers to help tackle major labour shortages in the logistics industry.
The government move came after panic buying followed BP saying last week that as many as 100 service stations had been disrupted and several forecourts closed because of a shortage of tanker drivers.
Grant Shapps, transport secretary, on Sunday urged people to be “sensible” and said there was plenty of fuel at Britain’s six refineries and 47 storage facilities.
“The most important thing is that actually people carry on as they normally would and fill up their cars when they normally would, then you won’t have queues and you won’t have shortages at the pump either,” he told Sky News.
Outlining the move to temporarily exempt the energy industry from the 1998 competition act on Sunday evening, Kwasi Kwarteng, business secretary, said the so-called downstream oil protocol would ensure the sector could share vital information and work together to minimise disruption.
“While there has always been and continues to be plenty of fuel at refineries and terminals, we are aware that there have been some issues with supply chains,” he added.
Earlier, government appeals to the public to exercise restraint had not been enough to halt a rush to petrol stations by motorists spooked by warnings that oil companies may need to restrict deliveries because of the lack of HGV drivers.
Long lines could be seen at many service stations at the weekend. BP, which operates one of the UK’s largest fuel networks, including many motorway sites, said on Sunday that it estimated 30 per cent of its branded service stations “do not currently have either of the main grades of fuel”.
BP and Royal Dutch Shell, which also operates a large fuel network, both said they were working flat out to replenish supplies.
But industry insiders said there was little that energy companies could do beyond waiting for panic buying to fizzle out.
Shell said it was replenishing sites that ran out “quickly, usually within 24 hours”.
BP said: “We continue to work hard with our haulier supplier, Hoyer, to optimise fuel distribution and to minimise the level of disruption.”
The scenes of petrol stations running dry have increased the pressure on the government, which is also grappling with energy suppliers collapsing following a surge in wholesale gas and electricity prices.
Households are braced for much higher energy bills — one of several factors that have prompted warnings of a cost of living crisis this winter.
Madderson welcomed the government’s plans to ease visa requirements for foreign workers but said the biggest problems were at the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency, a branch of the Department for Transport, where there was a significant backlog of lorry driver applicants looking to start training.
“Getting the DVLA sorted out is a number-one priority,” said Madderson.
Industries that are heavily reliant on fuel supplies said there were growing fears for what would happen in the coming days.
Steve Wright, chair of the Licensed Private Hire Car Association, a trade body, said he had asked the transport department to grant emergency-service status to licensed vehicles, which would give them priority access to fuel.
He added that fuel shortages would have a “catastrophic effect” as private hire vehicles were heavily used for transporting hospital patients and disabled students.
Additional reporting by Nic Fildes and Jim Pickard
Twice weekly newsletter
Energy is the world’s indispensable business and Energy Source is its newsletter. Every Tuesday and Thursday, direct to your inbox, Energy Source brings you essential news, forward-thinking analysis and insider intelligence. Sign up here.