‘10 days to save Christmas’: Ministers to meet on easing rules as retail industry warns of significant disruption

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A queue forms for an Esso petrol station on September 24, 2021 in London, United Kingdom. BP and Esso have announced that its ability to transport fuel from refineries to its branded petrol station forecourts is being impacted by the ongoing shortage of HGV drivers and as a result, it will be rationing deliveries to ensure continuity of supply. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

Retail industry has sent a dire warning to the government on Friday saying significant disruption is inevitable in the run-up to Christmas unless it moves to alleviate an acute shortage of truckers in the next 10 days.

A spike in European natural gas prices and a post-Brexit shortage of truck drivers have left Britain grappling with soaring energy prices and a potential food supply crunch.

BP had to close some of its gas stations due to the driver shortages while queues formed at some Shell stations as pumps ran dry in some places. ExxonMobil’s Esso said a small number of its 200 Tesco Alliance retail sites had also been impacted in some way.

In a rush to fill up, drivers also queued at some gas stations in London and the southern English county of Kent. At Hildenborough in southeast England, a BP petrol station was closed entirely and its pumps wrapped in plastic.

“Sorry we’re out of fuel. We are working hard to fix this,” signs read.

At least 50 of BP’s 1,200 service stations were out of at least one type of fuel, The Times reported, while BP told AFP a “handful of sites” had temporarily closed.

‘Supply Pressure’

Industry insiders said the lack of fuel deliveries was confined to southeastern England and appeared to be temporary, but was part of a wider problem.

BP blamed “industry-wide driver shortages across the UK”.

Gordon Balmer, of the Petrol Retailers Association, cited “supply pressure from a lack of trained HGV (heavy goods vehicle) drivers,” despite demand at 92 percent of pre-pandemic levels.

For months supermarkets, processors and farmers have warned that a shortage of HGV drivers was straining supply chains to breaking point – making it harder to get goods on to shelves.

“Unless new drivers are found in the next 10 days, it is inevitable that we will see significant disruption in the run-up to Christmas,” said Andrew Opie, director of food & sustainability at the British Retail Consortium, the retail industry’s lobby group.

“HGV drivers are the glue which holds our supply chains together,” Opie said. “Without them, we are unable to move goods from farms to warehouses to shops.”

The next 10 days are crucial because retailers ramp up supplies in October to ensure there are enough goods for the peak Christmas season.

Hauliers and logistics companies cautioned that there were no quick fixes and that any change to testing or visas would likely be too late to alleviate the pre-Christmas shortages as retailers stockpile months ahead.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government has insisted that there will be no return to the 1970s when Britain was cast by allies as the “sick man of Europe” with three-day weeks, energy shortages and rampant inflation.

It was also reminiscent of late 2000, when people protesting over high fuel prices blockaded oil refineries, bringing the country to a virtual standstill for weeks.

‘Don’t Panic’

As ministers urged the public not to panic buy, some of Britain’s biggest supermarkets have warned that the shortage of truck drivers could lead to just that ahead of Christmas.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro said that Johnson, whom he met in New York, had asked him for an “emergency” agreement to supply a food product that is lacking in Britain, though the British embassy disputed Bolsonaro’s account.

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said there was a global shortage of truckers after Covid halted lorry driver testing so Britain was doubling the number of tests. Asked if the government would ease visa rules, he said the government would look at all options.

“We’ll do whatever it takes,” Shapps told Sky News. “We’ll move heaven and earth to do whatever we can to make sure that shortages are alleviated with HGV drivers.

“We should see it smooth out fairly quickly,” he said.

Ministers are due to meet later on Friday in an attempt to hash out a fix.

Experts and business leaders say Brexit and the pandemic have cut the number of truck drivers working in Britain, hitting supply chains in sectors from food to building supplies.

Many drivers who have left Britain were from eastern Europe, and returned home due to the global health crisis or to avoid falling foul of tougher immigration rules.

A similar situation has affected seasonal fruit pickers, despite a government visa waiver scheme.

Trucker Visa?

The trucking industry body, the Road Haulage Association (RHA), has called on the government to allow short-term visas for international drivers to enter Britain and fill the gap, while British drivers are being trained for the future.

“It’s an enormous challenge,” Rod McKenzie, head of policy at the RHA, said. In the short-term, he said, international drivers could help, even if it may be too late to help Christmas, and in the longer term the industry needed better pay and conditions to attract workers.

“It’s a tough job. We the British do not help truckers in the way that Europeans and Americans do by giving them decent facilities,” he said.

The British haulage industry says it needs around 100,000 more drivers after 25,000 returned to Europe before Brexit and the pandemic halted the qualification process for new workers.

Don’t Blame Brexit

“Since Brexit has happened there’s been a shortage of labour across all industries,” said Shane Kenneally, 38, who runs a landscaping business, as he pulled into a west London filling station only to find there was no fuel.

“This should have been thought about but this government has always not thought ahead.”

Shapps, though, denied Brexit was to blame, calling critics “wrong” and highlighting similar issues affecting EU countries.

His department recently announced an overhaul for HGV driving tests to get more drivers behind the wheel as soon as possible.

Shapps added that Covid-19 exacerbated the problem given that Britain was unable to test 40,000 drivers during lockdowns.

The government has been facing a separate crisis over carbon dioxide stocks vital to the food and drink industry, due to a spike in wholesale gas prices.

But while saying he was “ruling nothing out”, Shapps rebuffed industry calls to add truck drivers to a special list of industries suffering labour shortages, to make it easier for EU citizens to obtain work visas.

He said he preferred to “get those people back in” to driving who had been put off the job by lower pay offered when European workers were plentiful.

Britain was also keen to “entice” back European truck drivers who have gained the necessary status to work in the UK but are currently overseas, he added.

The Times reported the government could draft in the army to deliver fuel and that ministers had discussed putting soldiers on standby.

But Shapps said: “Probably that’s not the solution in terms of just sheer numbers.”