The UK has deployed its reserve tanker fleet to help alleviate the fuel crisis as more forecourts reopened across the country in a sign that the panic may be easing.
Business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng announced that the pool of 80 government-owned tankers would be on the roads on Wednesday afternoon to boost deliveries of fuel to petrol stations across the country. “The trucks are driven by civilians and will provide additional logistical capacity to the fuel industry,” he said.
The announcement came as the Petrol Retailers Association, which represents the independent retailers that make up about two-thirds of the UK’s 8,000 petrol stations, said that approximately 27 per cent of its members’ sites were out of fuel on Wednesday. That compared with 37 per cent on Tuesday, and an estimated 50 to 90 per cent on Sunday and Monday.
“There are encouraging signs that the crisis at the pumps is easing,” said Gordon Balmer, the PRA’s executive director.
The government has been under increasing pressure to get a grip on the crisis, which began with limited disruption to fuel deliveries to petrol stations last week due to a shortage of heavy goods vehicle drivers. It was followed by panic buying that drained supplies at the weekend and chaotic scenes on forecourts as motorists raced to refill their vehicles.
Balmer said the PRA had received reports that petrol station staff had faced “completely unacceptable” verbal and physical abuse from customers over the past week. “Forecourts are trying their best to manage queues and ensure there is plenty of fuel to go around.”
The government’s tanker fleet is a pool available to private companies to lease, stored in depots in West Yorkshire and Cambridgeshire. Government insiders said the fleet had not been released before now due to “driver availability issues” among hauliers, since industry is typically expected to provide drivers for the vehicles from their existing workforce.
Those with knowledge of the situation said the industry had requested use of the reserve fleet after telling ministers they had more drivers than tankers, after amending shift patterns,
Ministers have said they will issue temporary visas to 5,000 foreign HGV drivers to help tackle the labour shortages in the logistics industry that led to the fuel problems, but that policy will take time to have an effect.
Meanwhile, the government is still preparing 150 army drivers to help transport fuel around the country. One Whitehall official said that training to drive petrol tankers began on Tuesday and the personnel “will be ready to be deployed this week where required”.
Kwarteng, however, also said that the situation appeared to be improving, with signs that more petrol stations were receiving more fuel. “The sooner we can all return to our normal buying habits, the sooner the situation will return to normal.”
Despite his reassurances, Steve McNamara, general secretary of the Licensed Taxi Drivers’ Association, said his members had not seen “any real significant change”. The association, he said, estimated that between 20 and 25 per cent of its members were still unable to work on Wednesday because they could not get fuel.
“Most places still haven’t got fuel and if you find one that has, you are in the queue for a significant amount of time,” he added.
McNamara called for an essential users list to be brought in as happened in 2000, arguing that this would “take the steam out of the problem”.
“At the moment this government doesn’t seem to have a plan other than to sit there and say ‘don’t panic’,” he added.