The fuel shortage in Britain is the latest and most obvious sign the supply chain is seriously out of whack, analysts and business owners say.
As images of a man threatening another driver with a knife at a gas station line went viral Tuesday, British Transport Minister Grant Shapps pleaded with drivers to stop using old plastic water bottles to add a few more gallons to their purchase.
“As soon as a tanker arrives at a filling station, people on social media are advising that a tanker has arrived and then it is like bees to a honey pot. Everyone flocks there and within a few hours it is out again,” Brian Madderson, chair of the Petrol Retailers Association, told BBC Radio.
British officials say there is plenty of fuel at the ports and refineries — just not at the pump.
Last week the government urged consumers not to all head to stations to top up their tanks — the warning may have done just the opposite by alerting drivers to likely shortages.
The panic buying has created a rush on gas stations, which are running dry with long lines of frustrated consumers. London drivers are traveling far outside of the city to fill their tanks.
Previously in Britain, the army has been called out to help save lives and villages from extreme flooding. Troops were also deployed to assist in the delivery of vaccines during the coronavirus pandemic.
The possibility that British soldiers will need to drive tanker trucks to service stations would mark a brand new mission and milestone in the country’s building supply crisis.
Britain faces a shortfall of more than 100,000 truck drivers. Many British-born drivers have left the profession, complaining of low wages and harsh conditions.
In recent decades, the shortage has been made up by hiring drivers from the European Union. The pandemic, Brexit and new immigration laws forced many of those drivers to return to their home countries or to work for Europe-based haulers.
To remedy the shortfall, the British government announced on Saturday that it would issue 5,000 temporary, three-month work visas for foreign drivers. Those visas would end on Christmas Eve.
Fearful of a holiday shortage of turkeys, the government also said it would grant another 5,500 temporary visas for poultry workers, an industry that also has heavily relied on foreign workers before Brexit.
Ruby McGregor-Smith, the president of the British Chambers of Commerce, blasted the government for doing too little, too late — “the equivalent of throwing a thimble of water on a bonfire.”
She said businesses have been warning of labor shortages for months and the government moved to cut off the supply of foreign workers before new domestic workers could be trained and hired.
“A managed transition, with a plan agreed between government and business, should have been in place from the outset. Instead, the supply of E.U. labor was turned off with no clear road map as to how this transition would be managed without disruption to services and supply chains,” McGregor-Smith said in a statement.
Getting more drivers with a heavy-goods vehicle license doesn’t happen with the snap of the finger, either. The large trucks require training — and those that haul fuel require even more.
Britain’s Department for Education announced its readiness to spend $15 million to create “skills boot camps” for 3,000 new truck drivers. Such training typically takes 12 weeks.
Andrew Opie, director of food and sustainability at the British Retail Consortium, told Reuters it would take many months before there are enough new British drivers to cover the shortfall.
In the meantime, there is the army and Tobias Ellwood, who chairs Parliament’s Defense Committee, said that British troops are needed now — not tomorrow. “We have gone from 1 percent fuel pump shortages to 90 percent,” he said to Sky News. “So altering people’s buying behavior to prevent the panic buying and going back to previous purchasing patterns requires regaining the confidence of the nation.”
Despite the new measures to lure back disaffected European drivers, Edwin Atema of a Netherlands-based truckers’ union said he was skeptical that there would be a flood of drivers clamoring to return to Britain on a temporary visa.
“The workers we’ve spoken to say they won’t come,” Atema told The Washington Post. “They are laughing, saying, ‘do they think we will come to the U.K. to help with the mess they worked themselves into?’ ”
There are also driver shortages in some countries on the European continent, but the situation isn’t as acute as it is in Britain.
Simonas Bartkus, a spokesman for the Lithuanian-based trucking company Girteka Logistics, said it hasn’t had any customers reporting a shortage of supplies, but because it wants to expand and due to turnover, it is trying to recruit 7,000 more drivers this year.
He said it’s “a global challenge to attract young people to this industry,” noting the long hours and time apart from family and friends. “I don’t believe there’s a silver bullet solution. It’s a complex issue. It’s not only about salaries or visas,” he said.
Britain’s transport secretary said Tuesday that the problem was due to the pandemic and the lockdowns that halted the testing for new drivers rather than leaving the European Union.
“Brexit I hear mentioned a lot, and it no doubt will have been a factor. On the other hand, it’s actually helped us to change rules to be able to test more drivers more quickly,” Shapps told Sky News, contradicting the opinion of many on the continent.
While British officials have tried to downplay the importance of Brexit, some European politicians aren’t so sure.
“We worked very hard to convince the British not to leave the union. Now they decided different and I hope they will manage the problems coming from that,” said Olaf Scholz, the favorite to take over from Angela Merkel as leader of Germany.
French European Affairs Minister Clement Beaune told France 2 television, “Every day, we see the intellectual fraud that was Brexit.”