Britain’s supply chain strain could last until after Christmas, Boris Johnson has admitted as he urged motorists to stop panic-buying fuel by insisting supplies were “improving” – despite thousands of forecourts remaining dry.
The prime minister intervened after being accused by Labour of “reducing the country to chaos” with car queues continuing to build up and fights breaking out at petrol stations, while teachers and hospital workers were left unable to get to work.
Seeking to reassure people there was no shortage of fuel at refineries, Johnson said he knew the difficulties had been “infuriating” but stressed that everyone should “go about their business in the normal way”.
“We now are starting to see the situation improve, we’re hearing from industry that supplies are coming back on to the forecourts,” he said.
Nevertheless, Johnson admitted the government was concerned about potential shortages of other goods leading up to 2022, saying: “What we want to do is make sure that we have all the preparations necessary to get through until Christmas and beyond – not just in the supply of the petrol stations, but all parts of our supply chain.
“You’re seeing the global economy really sucking in a huge amount at the moment, for gas, for lorry drivers. There are shortages around the world … but we’ve got to make sure we have everything in place as the recovery continues, and that’s what we’re doing.”
His comments came as the Petrol Retailers Association announced there were “early signs” that the crisis at pumps was ending. The organisation, which represents around 5,500 independent forecourts across the UK and at the end of last week said 50%-90% of its members had reported running dry, said that figure had fallen to 37% on Tuesday.
Despite the government’s bullishness, some senior insiders are still tentative. One said it was “still too early to call” whether the situation would continue improving, while others were reluctant to say that the crisis was near ending.
There is uncertainty about exactly which goods will be disrupted by the shortage of about 90,000 heavy goods vehicle (HGV) drivers – with sources predicting that shop and supermarkets shelves will not run bare, but that the number of different brand products available to customers will be squeezed.
Ministers have sought to head off fears of a second winter of discontent by issuing a total of 10,500 temporary visas for lorry drivers and poultry workers to last up until Christmas, suspending some competition rules for the fuel delivery industry and putting the army on standby to drive tankers if needed.
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The official request made on Monday for army support was approved late on Tuesday. Soldiers are not yet being deployed, but the sign-off by the Ministry of Defence means the 150 military personnel can begin specialist training to learn how to drive fuel tankers.
But Keir Starmer said before his first in-person speech as Labour leader at its party conference in Brighton that Johnson had acted too slowly and was dragging the country “from crisis to crisis”.
He backed a proposal put forward by the Liberal Democrats and British Medical Association on Monday for key workers to get priority access to fuel, given the problems some of those working in hospitals and schools have faced – as well as people who rely on visits from carers.
“This problem was predictable and predicted, and the government has absolutely failed to plan,” Starmer said. After a meeting with haulage firms, he said the companies were “beyond frustrated” that ministers had tried “denying there’s a problem, then blaming somebody else, and then coming up with a half-baked plan” to fix it.
Jon Ashworth, the shadow health secretary, went one step further and suggested people reliant on medical and social care could suffer or even die if the fuel crisis was not solved quickly.
A charity also warned that volunteers who deliver vital blood products to hospitals for the NHS have been hit by “frustrating” fuel shortages. Johan Pieterse from Serv Kent, said it was “affecting all emergency services, not just us”, and added: “God forbid someone is in hospital needing a blood product or someone is at home and they can’t get it because we are stuck in queues of traffic.”
The GMB union said private hire taxi drivers were “on their knees” due to being unable to get fuel. “These drivers take patients to hospital, take children to school and are often the only way people with disabilities can get around,” national officer Mick Rix said.Internet Explorer Channel Network