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A first class panic has hit the petrol forecourts

Spooked consumers driving petrol crisis

By Ricky Browne

I am a pedestrian these days and have been for a while. So I’m watching the news of high stress at petrol stations across the UK with some level of disengagement and a little bit of trepidation of how it may eventually directly affect me.

There is lots of petrol in Britain, but the problem is the supply chain, where fuel delivery has slowed down due to a lack of tanker drivers.

But this in itself is nothing new. What is new is the level of panic that drivers have reached, fearful that they won’t be able to fill their tank, and may therefore be stuck at home when they should be driving to work or to school or wherever they drive to.

Many petrol stations ran out of fuel — but normality is returning

Everything was running smoothly until late last week, when BP announced that they may have to shut a “handful” of petrol stations due to the shortage in tanker drivers.

This came at a time when the overall shortage of lorry drivers has been affecting other sections of the retail sector – coupled with some other problems. Chicken and other meat products along with fresh vegetables were not as abundant on supermarket shelves, not just because of the scarcity of drivers, but because of the scarcity of carbon dioxide. The gas is used in the production and packaging of meat and vegetables.

That shortage came about because of the sudden increase in the cost of natural gas, which has brought about the closure of some smaller electricity companies. But it also caused the closure of a company that produces fertilizer. So what, some people may well ask.

Well, as a part of its fertilizer production process, that company also produces a large portion of the UK’s carbon dioxide as a by-product.

The UK government stepped in and gave the American company millions of pounds of taxpayer’s money to reopen.

Queuing up for petrol

The problem may have been fixed. But the fear remained for the consumers that things were not right and could get worse.

The promise by Business Secretary by Kwasi Kwarteng that there would be return to the 1970s and its “winter of discontent” did nothing to quell those fears.

So when BP made its announcement, the media jumped onto the story, continuing its headlines of “Don’t panic! Don’t panic!” .

Dad’s Army in non-panic mode Photo: BBC

Just as in Dad’s Army, the end result to such an outburst was panic. So on Saturday, when many drivers would presumably normally go out to fill their tanks, many more did.

The long queues of drivers, waiting patiently and not so patiently for two hours and more, caused other drivers to think – I bet fill up too. No telling where this is going.

So demand appears to have been much larger than normal – which meant that more than a handful of petrol stations ran out of fuel. That drove more panic, as drivers drove around desperately trying to find a station that was still open so that they would be OK for the week ahead.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has not tweeted about the crisis, in an apparent effort to perhaps minimise news coverage, or to put as much distance between him and the crisis as possible. But earlier today he did make a statement to the BBC on the subject. He said the situation was starting to return to normality and stabilizing. “I urge people to go about their business in the normal way”, Johnson said, adding “I sympathise with those people who are worried about journeys.”

JOHNSON… people should go about their business in a normal way Photo: BBC

On the question of whether the country is in a crisis, Johnson said “What we’ve got is a global economy that is recovering from a once-in-a-century pandemic that has caused some particular shortages”.

Government has said that they are looking to give visas to fuel truck drivers in an effort to relieve the stress – with up to 5000 HGV drivers to be given visas to take them up to Christmas. But that deal is not attractive to many existing lorry drivers in Europe, who are already in high demand. And that deal may not be very attractive to drivers from countries like Jamaica, who don’t necessarily want to uproot their lives for a three month opportunity.

So Government is also reportedly about to roll out the army, with perhaps 150 soldiers driving fuel tankers.

Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng

“Tonight, British Army tanker drivers will be put on a state of readiness and deployed if necessary to deliver fuel While the fuel industry expects demand will return to normal levels in the coming days, it is right that we take this precautionary step”, tweeted Kwarteng yesterday.

But this has done little to quell fears, given that the UK is said to need some 100,000 lorry drivers to make up for the shortage. The shortage itself is due to a number of factors. One is Brexit, where some drivers from the EU may have decided to go back to their home countries. Another is the pandemic, where some drivers decided to go back home, but also new drivers couldn’t take their licence tests. Another is some drivers have retired – and haven’t been replaced.

Of course many ‘Remain’ supporters have put the blame completely on Brexit – but that overlooks the fact that there is said to be a worldwide shortage of lorry drivers, affecting EU countries and the United States and others.

But no country seems to have been as badly affected as the UK – so it could probably be successfully argued that Brexit is the main contributing factor for this economy

Unfortunately, the effect of the shortage of lorry drivers is likely to continue to snowball into other areas of the retail sector – with knock on effects on other sectors.

There have been calls for essential workers to get first access to petrol. The argument is that NHS staff need to get to work as do teachers and other professionals.

This is not a jackpot

But students also need to get to school – not just teachers. And patients need to get to the NHS. Bringing in a new system that regulates who can or can’t buy petrol based on their profession is likely to drive even more fear and continue or even escalate the panic buying that is currently going on.

The Conservative government’s natural reaction is let the market sort itself out, which is basically what Johnson has said. But market looks like its spooked and the petrol situation could continue for a while longer, certainly bringing to mind the kind of shortages and lack of services that happened under the Winter of Discontent.

Meanwhile, all those people worried about climate change and the production of too much carbon, should be relishing this turn of events.

But the likelihood is that this current situation will be short-lived. But the snowball keeps on rolling – and what part of the economy will be hit next is anyone’s guess.

Luckily for the government the opposition is in almost as much disarray as the economy. The Labour Conference currently going on in Brighton seems to be showing the party to be far from unified, and far from offering a realistic alternative to the Conservative government. As it tries to keep itself together, it is not able to get much strategic benefit from how the Conservatives are currently handling the economy.

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