Richard North, 25/09/2021  

I seem to recall, the last time we had a fuel crisis, that the average fuel level in private cars was about half a tank – which sort of figures. Thus, it was said, if every single motorist, simultaneously, decided to keep their tanks filled to the brim, that in itself would create a temporary shortage. The supply system would be unable to keep up with the spike in demand.

That very much seems to be the case with this current situation, which has all the hallmarks of an engineered crisis, a view shared by the Telegraph which is running an article entitled, "How BP sparked a fuel crisis in drive to ease visa rules".

The paper's sub-heading gives a sense of the story, telling us: "Timing of leak about oil giant's pleading fuels suspicions it is more about a lobbying campaign for looser EU immigration policies".

From the story itself, we learn that the origins of the shortage meme stem from a Cabinet Office taskforce meeting nine days ago with some of Britain's biggest companies and industry associations, at which BP's head of retail, Hannah Hofer, was present.

Hofer asked the taskforce to convey to ministers "the urgency of the problem" her company was confronting in respect of the shortage of drivers, with deliveries restricted to up to 100 of its 1,200 sites. She warned that the firm had "two thirds of normal forecourt stock levels required for smooth operations" and levels were "declining rapidly".

By all accounts, this information was passed in confidence but, somewhere along the line someone leaked Hofer's comments, which have since been picked up by the media.

BP sources, we are told, deny being behind the leak, claiming that headlines about petrol rationing across the company’s sites are hardly in its interest. But suspicion has nonetheless fallen on the haulage industry and the businesses it supplies, from oil companies to supermarkets.

The motivation is obvious: the haulage/logistics industry has spent months – without success - lobbying for a temporary visa regime for EU drivers, to help address what it claims to be a shortfall of 100,000 heavy goods vehicle drivers in the UK.

Industry leaders also want the government to put the occupation on the official shortage occupation list, which would allow it to benefit from more relaxed immigration rules. The BP leak has done them no harm, with one source suggesting that the leak was aimed at pressuring the government.

Thus, says the Telegraph, the timing has fuelled suspicion that the leak is more to do with low politics and a lobbying campaign for looser visa restrictions, to bring in more drivers and bring down soaring costs.

Fingers are pointing at the Road Haulage Association, whose managing director of policy Rod McKenzie, a former BBC executive "and fierce opponent of a hard Brexit over the past five years", was at the Cabinet Office meeting. Needless to say, the RHA categorically denies being the source of the leak.

Nevertheless, the leak seems to be working, with scenes of cars queuing on petrol forecourts making the front pages, and leading broadcast news bulletins, creating a sense of crisis which has been seized upon by the media. And such is the general lack of trust in this current administration that pleas from ministers to maintain normal purchasing patterns have been disregarded.

Amongst others, though, motorists' groups are said to be "baffled" by the issue being thrust into the public consciousness. All summer, there has been low-level disruption, but this has barely registered, and no drivers have been unable to get fuel.

Fewer than 20 BP forecourts have been forced to close completely and the AA's president, Edmund King, is cited as stressing that there is "no shortage of fuel". He points out that thousands of forecourts are operating normally with just a few suffering temporary supply chain problems, while demand for road fuel is still almost a tenth below pre-pandemic levels.

"There have been occasional delays over recent weeks that have been managed with hardly anyone noticing. This was a manageable problem", King is cited as saying. As to the "tanker driver shortage", this will not represent a typical scenario.

BP retail deliveries are contracted out to the logistics group, Hoyer. And it is unlikely that its workforce has been affected by the exodus of migrant workers. Tanker drivers are regarded as the "aristocracy" of the driving fraternity, and are better paid than average. The current Hoyer website advertises vacancies with salaries ranging from £37,500 to £56,000, with substantial benefits and training. Jobs are highly sought after by the indigenous workforce.

In order to drive fuel tankers, drivers must undertake so-called ADR training on procedures for operating vehicles carrying dangerous goods, and hold a Petroleum Driver Passport (PDP), renewed annually after seven hours of accredited CPC training. These demand good English language skills, making the posts less accessible to migrants.

Hoyer, as a company, operates from 30 sites throughout the UK, yet it currently lists only 20 driving vacancies – not all of them for tanker drivers. That checks out with the Guardian which says that Hoyer is understood to have up to 450 drivers delivering fuel to BP on any given day - about 20 fewer than it needs. That is hardly a catastrophe.

Most likely, some part of the operational shortfall arises from Covid "pings", with drivers self-isolating after contact with conformed Covid sufferers. But if this "shortage" is a scare put up by the industry, elsewhere in the Telegraph, there is attempt to redress the balance, with an article headed, "Don't blame Brexit for driver shortages".

There is, the paper says – as we already know – a European-wide shortage of lorry drivers, along with failure to train staff and online shopping boom are all contributing to the problem. McKenzie is given a platform but at least he admits that poor pay and conditions have been an issue for years. "We've been underpaying drivers and it hasn't been seen as a preferred trade occupation by young Britons", he says.

But then James Bower of the United Road Transport Union takes up the cudgels, condemning truck stop facilities are "appalling". These, he says, have contributed to drivers quitting the industry. "It is a thankless task - they work really hard then at the end of the day they cannot even get somewhere to have a proper rest with proper showers and toilets", he explains.

But we also hear that, in addition to poor pay, shortages have also been fuelled by the Treasury recently closing a tax "loophole", the infamous IR35 rules. The industry says reforms to off-payroll working rules to clampdown on tax avoidance pushed many agency workers out of the sector.

And, of course, Covid-19 has had a considerable impact. The pandemic has interrupted training and testing so severely that 20,000 fewer licences have been issued. With a backlog of 40,000 people waiting to take their HGV tests, the Guardian puts the number of EU drivers who left and did not return at 25,000. Clearly, this is the smaller part of the problem.

And, while under pressure from the adverse publicity, Downing Street is said to be considering "very strictly time-limited" relaxations of immigration rules (with some reports saying that Johnson is willing to allow the grant of 5,000 visas), it is by no means clear that such measures will help the situation.

Analysts at Transport Intelligence, the Telegraph says, has found that Europe is short of 400,000 drivers. With experience of the poor working conditions in the UK, and higher wage rates on offer in Europe, there is no good reason why foreign drivers should rush across the Channel to fulfil short-term contracts, issued grudgingly by the national authorities.

Against that, Andrew Opie, director of food at the British Retail Consortium, complains of a shortfall of around 90,000 HGV drivers. "Unless a solution can be found in the next ten days", he says, "it is inevitable that we will see significant disruption in the run-up to Christmas".

On the basis of what we know though, despite the industry's exaggeration of the fuel "crisis", ten days will not be enough to sort what is, after all, a problem that has been many years in the making. This is not going to be over for Christmas.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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