Ministers order deployment of troops to deliver fuel within days

Government ministers have ordered the deployment of soldiers to distribute petrol and diesel within days, in a dramatic escalation of the national fuel crisis which has seen pumps run dry and prices spike to an eight-year high.

At an emergency meeting in Whitehall, ministers agreed to put military tanker drivers in a state of readiness to take the wheel of civilian tankers if normal conditions do not return swiftly. Defence sources said that 75 drivers have been put on standby initially, with a further 75 along with 150 support staff available if needed, with several days of specialised training required before deployment.

Meanwhile, transport secretary Grant Shapps issued an extension to driver licences, temporarily freeing tanker drivers from the requirement to take refresher training courses every five years. Licences expiring before the new year will have their validity extended to 31 January 2022 to provide immediate relief from driver shortages.

Government ministers issued a plea to the public for calm, insisting that panic buying was unnecessary as there was no shortage of fuel in the UK. And they were backed up by fuel distribution leaders, who said they believed supplies will return to normal within days.

But the man set to replace Angela Merkel as Germany’s chancellor, said the crisis – which has seen industry sources warn of a 100,000 shortfall in HGV drivers – was only to be expected as a result of Brexit and low pay in the UK.

“We worked very hard to convince the British not to leave the union,” said SPD leader Olaf Scholz. “Now they decided different and I hope they will manage the problems coming from that.”

He added: “If you understand that being a trucker is really something that many people like to be and you find not enough [are applying], this has something to do with working conditions and this is something that has to be thought about.”

Queues at petrol stations continued to build around the country, with reports of fighting at the pumps and police appealing for motorists not to be abusive to attendants.

The Petrol Retailers Association (PRA) reported that up to 90 per cent of its independent members were out of fuel in some areas, after oil giant BP said one-third of its sites had no supplies.

Staff at one petrol station told The Independent they had been forced to close down after customers became intimidating and aggressive.

And the offer of temporary visas for EU drivers to help plug a manpower shortfall running into tens of thousands won short shrift from one European truckers’ leader.

Edwin Atema, of the Federation of Dutch Trade Unions (FNV), told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “The EU workers we speak to will not go to the UK for a short-term visa to help the UK get out of the s*** they created for themselves.

“It’s not like offering a visa … and the issue will be solved. Drivers need way more than a visa and a pay slip.”

Marco Digioia, general secretary of the European Road Haulers Association (UETR), which represents 70 per cent of trucking companies across the EU, said: “I expect many drivers will not return to the UK even if the UK government allows them to.

“While offering visas to drivers on the continent would be a welcome step, there are many other issues, such as working conditions, pay and the costs of getting into and working in the UK.”

Announcing the request for armed forces assistance under the Military Aid to the Civil Authorities scheme, business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng said: “While the fuel industry expects demand will return to its normal levels in the coming days, it’s right that we take this sensible, precautionary step.

“The UK continues to have strong supplies of fuel, however we are aware of supply chain issues at fuel station forecourts and are taking steps to ease these as a matter of priority.

“If required, the deployment of military personnel will provide the supply chain with additional capacity as a temporary measure to help ease pressures caused by spikes in localised demand for fuel.”

The move comes after the government relaxed competition rules to allow fuel companies to cooperate in ensuring supplies get to shortage areas and deal with localised spikes in demand.

In a joint statement, nine major fuel distribution companies including Shell, Esso and Wincanton, 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.”

The average price of a litre of petrol across the UK rose from 135.87p on Friday to 136.59p on Sunday, according to figures from the RAC. This is the highest that pump prices have been since September 2013.

Meanwhile, the price of wholesale petrol has also risen from 123.25p on Monday 20 September to 125.22p just four days later, with the RAC warning that this could cause pump prices to rise further.

Mr Shapps said there were signs of panic buying “moderating”, with more grades of fuel now available at more petrol stations.

“People have been responding to the message to only fill up when they actually need fuel, and in any case their cars are now fuller,” he said.

Continuing the government approach of blaming the problems on unusual purchasing patterns rather than a collapse in the distribution system, he insisted that the current network of tanker drivers was “capable of delivering all the fuel we need”.

Nevertheless, he said that the army had been asked to “plug the gap” while new HGV drivers come on stream.

PRA chairman Brian Madderson questioned whether the army drivers would make much difference to the situation.

“There has been training going on in the background for military personnel,” he said.

“But that’s perhaps just confined to moving the tanker by articulated truck from point A to point B. One of the difficulties is loading,” he said, adding that was “a skilled job”.

And unions warned that only “a handful” of former drivers were likely to return to work in response to a Department for Transport letter to 1 million HGV licence holders asking them to consider coming back.

Labour is calling for looser immigration rules to ease the crisis, arguing drivers queuing for hours for petrol “couldn’t care less” if lorry drivers are foreign.

Shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves called for the independent Migration Advisory Committee to decide the issue – after a miserly 5,000 visas were issued to overseas drivers.

“Most people who are queuing up this morning, whether that’s in Brighton or Leeds or wherever, to fill up their car, they couldn’t care less whether the HGV driver that’s got the petrol to the forecourt is British or foreign,” she said.

“What they want to know is that they can fill up their car or their van and go about the business – so let’s plug those gaps.”

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