Fuel supply issue expected to ease ‘in days’ amid concern for Cambridgeshire key workers
The fuel supply issue should improve “in days” according to Cambridgeshire County Council, which is monitoring its impact on essential services such as social care and waste disposal.
Lengthy queues around petrol stations, and some closed forecourts, are continuing to greet drivers looking to fill up their tanks across Cambridgeshire.
And the Cambridge Independent has learned that letters could be given to key workers to ensure they get priority at filling stations if the situation does not improve in the coming days.
Ministers have repeated their pleas to drivers not to ‘panic buy’ after a national shortage of HGV drivers prompted some to fill up before it was necessary.
Among the stations with supply problems today (Monday) were the Esso garage in Histon Road, Cambridge, and the BP Garage on Elizabeth Way in Cambridge, while Tesco at Bar Hill had run out of diesel earlier in the day.
Lengthy queues could be seen at stations around the county. Some Shell, BP and Texaco garages have imposed a £30 fuel limit per driver.
Cllr Lucy Nethsingha, the Liberal Democrat leader of the coalition running Cambridgeshire County Council, said: “We are keeping a close eye on the situation about fuel supplies reaching local petrol stations and totally understand that this may be causing anxiety .
“The county council has met with our partners this morning and been reassured about capacity in key areas of service. We will continue to keep in close contact with all partners so we know what the situation is across our area.
“We are told, and clearly hope, that the situation should improve in the coming days, and meanwhile would ask that people try not to block roads while queuing for petrol and are patient and kind to all those trying to get the situation resolved.
“I will be closely monitoring this and we will take further action if we need to, to make sure there is no disruption to essential services - particularly in the areas of social care or waste.”
Cllr Nethinsingha told the Cambridge Independent that there were “high-level contingencies” should the situation worsen and added: “I think if it doesn’t get better in the next day or two, one of the things that is being considered is giving a letter to key workers so they can take it to petrol stations to say ‘Please make sure I can have some fuel’. But we obviously have limited capacity to act - the government is the body that has the major ability to make changes.”
The government has said it is not currently planning to use the Armed Forces to drive tankers.
“One of the things I’m most worried about is the domiciliary care workers,” added Cllr Nethsingha. “We’re in close touch with the providers of those services and we have been told that things are under control. But that was this morning (Monday) and obviously this is a fast-moving situation so we need to keep in close contact with companies, and they will be in close contact with their staff.”
Cllr Nethsingha told motorists: “The key message is to be considerate. We’ve seen people over the course of the pandemic to be thoughtful to their friends and neighbours and I would ask people to think like that again. We need to think about those people for whom getting to work could be a matter of a life and death.
“But I do have enormous sympathy with people worried about the situation.”
Meanwhile, in a joint statement, leading suppliers, including BP, Esso and Shell, have predicted that with many cars now carrying more petrol than usual, pressure on filling stations should start to ease.
The statement, issued by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy said: “There is plenty of fuel at UK refineries and terminals, and as an industry we are working closely with the Government to help ensure fuel is available to be delivered to stations across the country.
“As many cars are now holding more fuel than usual, we expect that demand will return to its normal levels in the coming days, easing pressures on fuel station forecourts.
“We would encourage everyone to buy fuel as they usually would.”
Earlier, the Prime Minister’s official spokesman said there were currently no plans to use the military, beyond assisting with the drive to reduce the backlog of HGV tests.
“Obviously we will continue to look at all options and make sure preparatory steps are taken across government should further measures be needed,” the spokesman said.
“We are not currently bringing in the military to drive tankers.”
Cabinet Office minister Stephen Barclay was chairing cross-government talks on Monday to assess the latest situation.
Environment secretary George Eustice stressed: “There isn’t a shortage (of fuel). The cause of these current problems is that panic-buying episode and the most important thing is for people to start buying petrol as they normally would.
“There does come a point – as we saw during a previous episode of panic buying during the pandemic on food – where things settle down and people get used to it, and return to life as normal again.
“The sooner people do that the better. The only reason we don’t have petrol on the forecourts is that people are buying petrol when they don’t need to.”
The British Medical Association (BMA) called for healthcare workers to be given priority to access fuel.
Dr Chaand Nagpaul, chair of council at the BMA, said: “Everyone will have their own reasons for needing to fill up, but as pumps run dry there is a real risk that NHS staff won’t be able to do their jobs and provide vital services and care to people who urgently need it.
“Healthcare and essential workers must therefore be given priority access to fuel so they can continue their crucial work and guarantee care to patients.”
The Petrol Retailers Association (PRA) blamed the dash to fill up on the leak last week of concerns by BP about some shortages of tanker drivers needed to deliver fuel supplies.
PRA chairman Brian Madderson said stations were being restocked but delivery numbers were down - and the solution lay in the hands of motorists.
“If they start buying in their normal quantities, £20 worth, 20 litres to fill up every week, we could see by the end of this week some return to normality – it won’t be perfect, but some return,” he told BBC Breakfast.
Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng temporarily suspended competition laws on Sunday, allowing the industry to share information so it can target areas where fuel supply is running low.
The government is creating 5,000 three-month visas for foreign lorry drivers in an attempt to ease the pressure on hauliers.
But Labour’s shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves said ministers had ignored warnings from the industry for months.
She told ITV’s Good Morning Britain: “Since last year I have been meeting and talking with the Road Haulage Association and hauliers about some of the problems coming down the line.
“The government ignored those problems, which is why we are now facing the situation where people go to the supermarkets and see shortages of goods on the shelves, and why they are queuing up at petrol stations and not being able to fill up their tank.
“That is not acceptable, this is an out-of-touch and complacent government.”
Edwin Atema from the Dutch FNV union, which represents drivers across the Europe, said the offer of temporary visas would not be enough to attract drivers back to the UK following Brexit.
“On the short-term I think that will be a dead end,” he told the BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. “So more is needed, and I think the EU workers we speak to will not go to the UK for a short-term visa to help UK out of the shit they created themselves.”
While the HGV shortage is global, the UK has been affected more severely because thousands of drivers from the EU left the country during the pandemic and did not return. Brexit rules prevented them from taking up vacant positions.
The Road Haulage Association estimated last month that 14,000 EU drivers left during the pandemic, with only around 500 of these returning.
Some have argued that being part of the EU meant wages in the sector were depressed for several years, as supermarkets squeezed suppliers.
Meanwhile, HGV testing sites were closed during the pandemic, causing a backlog in those looking to take the test. There is also an ageing workforce and the long hours with low pay – compared with rates elsewhere in Europe – have also contributed.
Sign up for our weekly newsletter and stay up to date with Cambridge news, sport, business, science and culture