Britain’s food, fuel shortage sparks chaos and panic: Shortfall of truck drivers, Covid woes

British PM Boris Johnson has mobilised the military in response to a growing crisis, with long queues at petrol stations and drivers clashing.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has mobilised the army in case it’s needed to help relieve the pressure on petrol stations across the country.

Thousands of the United Kingdom’s fuel stations have run dry amid a national shortage caused by panic buying and a lack of truck drivers.

Hours-long queues of frustrated motorists are forming at the pumps each day, despite pleas from the government and the fuel companies to stay away and only buy petrol as needed.

Meanwhile, the cost of a litre of petrol has risen to its highest point since September of 2013.

There have also been tense clashes between motorists. In one shocking incident caught on camera in southeast London, a man pulled a knife on another driver while shouting at him through his car window.

The man was then thrown onto the bonnet as the car moved forward, before he circled back to the driver’s side and kicked the vehicle, damaging its mirror.

Police arrived at the scene to find “no trace of either vehicle”. No injuries were reported and the drivers involved have yet to be identified.

The government and fuel industry insist the crisis will ease in the coming days. In a joint statement, the petrol companies – including BP, Shell and Esso – said there was “plenty of fuel” at the nation’s refineries that merely needed to be delivered to stations.

“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 normally would,” the companies said.

Mr Johnson’s cabinet decided to put the military on standby at a meeting on Monday, local time. Army drivers will be ready to help deliver petrol in the short term, a step Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng called “sensible” and “precautionary”.

“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 them,” he said.

“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.”

Opposition Leader Keir Starmer has accused the government of allowing the crisis to “spiral out of control” despite “months of warnings” from the industry.

The national supply chain shortage is not just affecting petrol.

In supermarkets across Britain, the number of shelves sitting bare is growing each week, with more and more products becoming unavailable.

The fast food chicken chain Nando’s has had to close some outlets and limited its menu at others because of an inability to source poultry, while it’s become difficult to get a McDonald’s milkshake.

Popular imported beer brands aren’t available at pubs across the United Kingdom and the supply from local brewers might soon run dry.

A perfect storm of factors that’s been brewing for months has struck the UK and the impacts could be devastating, lasting many months. 

A crisis waiting to erupt

How does one of the world’s wealthiest countries run short of food and fuel?

For one, demand for just about everything has surged since the end of Covid-19 restrictions as Brits emerge from extended lockdowns and begin enjoying life again with gusto.

Whether it’s a boom in online shopping, a rush on restaurants, the reopening of pubs and cafes, or huge numbers of people hitting the road to holiday around the country, demand for food, road transportation services and petrol has exploded.

Secondly, at the same time, the ramifications of Brexit – the UK’s divorce from the European Union – are being felt in a big way.

Hordes of foreign workers have had to return to their home countries due to visa requirements. The free movement of EU citizens – and workers – into the country is now a thing of the past.

Conservative estimates indicate at least one million people have abruptly left the workforce as a result, predominantly in the services sector, creating a labour shortage in critical industries like road transportation, processing and handling, distribution and production.

So, thirdly, there simply aren’t enough people to drive the trucks that bring in and move around food, petrol and other goods.

Fourth, the pandemic also saw the suspension of public service operations like driver testing, so there’s a backlog of would-be truck drivers waiting to take tests. Overly onerous infection control measures, such as regular testing and contact tracing, are turning others away, industry groups say.

And finally, on top of all of that, the economic impacts of Covid-19 forced a number of companies to downscale and lay off workers over the past 18 months.

As these combinations of factors make themselves felt and the public cottons on, panic ensues and people swarm shops and service stations to stock up.

There’s now speculation that schools could be temporarily closed to reduce the number of people moving around and lower demand for petrol. 

Fuel shortage crisis looms

The Petrol Retailers Association, which represents more than 5500 independent service stations around the country, reported that up to 90 per cent of its members were running dry.

A number of petrol providers warn they’re facing a shortage, with BP saying 300 of its service stations across the country have been impacted, representing about 30 per cent of its network.

Some have run out of unleaded, some of diesel, while many have closed entirely, it said.

Deliveries to some parts of the country are being suspended and redeployed in an effort to more evenly distribute supplies.

“There is plenty of fuel within the country,” UK Transport Minister Grant Shapps told Sky News.

“If people fill up cars when they normally would then you won’t have queues and you won’t have shortages at the pump.”

But that plea has fallen on deaf ears, with enormous queues snaking out of service station driveways and down the street, in some cases for hundreds of metres, as panic spreads.

That’s sparked traffic chaos, with public transport services in some areas cancelled because buses can’t get around the gridlock.

Tensions are flaring up, with the wait at some servos running for hours.

Four men traded punches at an Esso service station in West Sussex on Friday night and in another row, another group of men threw rocks at each other outside a Shell in Portsmouth.

And in one incident in London, an ambulance with lights flashing and siren blaring, smashed into the back of one queuing car as it tried to make its way through.

Anti-competition regulations have been torn up so major fuel companies can engage in what’s normally seen as collusion to co-ordinate supply, in a bid to get it to areas worst-hit by shortages.

A £30 limit ($A56) on fuel purchases has been imposed and police in a number of areas are now marshalling traffic.  

A brutal winter lies ahead

The country’s retail industry lobby has warned there’s just a week left to find enough truck drivers to save Christmas, otherwise widespread shortages over the festive season are inevitable.

Andrew Opie from the British Retail Consortium told Reuters supplies were ramped up at this time of the year to ensure enough food for the peak December period.

But with months of repeated warnings from supermarkets, farmers and processors have been largely ignored by the government, it could be too late to stockpile food and other goods.

In addition, the Road Haulage Association told Reuters there’s a shortfall of 100,000 heavy goods vehicle drivers in the UK, meaning avoiding imminent disaster was highly unlikely.

Some employers are offering huge incentives for people to become truck drivers, with £2000 ($A3700) sign-on bonuses and starting salaries of £70,000 ($A131,000).

Government efforts to cut red tape, including fast-tracking, look to be too little, too late.

Paul Scully, the UK’s Minister for Small Business, warned it was going to be “a really difficult winter for people”.

In an interview with ITV last week, Mr Scully said people shouldn’t panic buy as it would only make the situation worse.

“We know this is going to be a challenge and that’s why we don’t underestimate the situation that we all find ourselves in,” he said.

There’s now speculation that members of the British military could be enlisted to drive trucks until the long-term workforce can be boosted.

Ian Wright, chief executive officer of the Food and Drink Federation, said the impacts currently being felt will only worsen unless “fact action is taken”.

“We need the government urgently to conduct a full survey of the state of employment markets to gain an understanding of the most pressing issues,” Mr Wright said in a statement.

Ripple effect to gas prices

Elsewhere, the shortage of drivers, production shortfalls and higher demand across Europe have also seen the cost of gas skyrocket.

That significant increase in the wholesale cost of natural gas caused several British energy retailers to collapse in the past two months.

Providers are paying significantly more but are unable to pass on any of the cost to consumers because of government-imposed caps on retail prices that are only reviewable twice a year.

The next price review is in April, meaning it’s a while until that extra cost can be absorbed by income.

Soaring gas prices have also impacted the production of C02, which is needed in a range of industries – including food and drink production, for everything from stunning livestock before slaughter to vacuum packing fresh food and making carbonated drinks.

The manufacturer CF Industries recently shuttered two of its major production sites as a result of cost explosions, immediately impacting 60 per cent of the UK’s commercial supply of C02.

The government has since struck a deal with the company to resume operations, but food and drink producers will pay up to five times as much due to soaring demand sparked by the shortage.

No end in sight

If all of that wasn’t bad enough, the country is now also facing an inflation crisis, with the Bank of England warning the rate will climb beyond 4 per cent this year, which is double expectations.

Yael Selfin, chief economist at KPMG in the UK, told CNBC there was no quick fix to the supply crisis, with labour shortages taking six months to resolve.

“We are a little bit vulnerable as there’s a lot of strain in the system already,” Ms Selfin said.

“Any additional shock, like what we’ve just seen with gas prices, is just going to make it harder for businesses and households to absorb.”

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Author: Shirley