U.K. Fuel Crisis Eases, Normality Still Several Days Away
The U.K.’s road-fuel crisis showed signs of easing as more stations were resupplied, although a return to normal operations was still several days away.
About 37% of service stations represented by the U.K. Petrol Retailers Association reported being out of fuel on Tuesday morning, compared with more than 50% on Sunday. But there were still long lines at those locations that had been resupplied, prolonging the anguish and disruption suffered by motorists since the crisis broke last week.
“We now are starting to see the situation improving,” Prime Minister Boris Johnson told broadcasters on Tuesday. “Supplies are coming back onto the forecourts.”
Johnson’s government is struggling to show it can get control, with images of the chaos at gas stations dominating the newspapers for days on an issue of fundamental importance to voters. It’s just the latest example of supply chain disruption and shortages during the pandemic, which exacerbated an existing shortage of truck drivers after Brexit.
That makes the issue perilous for Johnson, who led the campaign to split the U.K. from its biggest trading partner and critically, signed the divorce deal and trade agreement that cut the supply of labor from the EU’s seamless market.
The government has tried to shift the focus away from Brexit, instead blaming the crisis on the surge in demand caused by an economic rebound from the coronavirus pandemic. The Army has been put on standby to help with deliveries, as ministers try to show they’re getting a grip of the problem.
“We have conducted a survey of our members this morning and only 37% of forecourts have reported being out of fuel today,” Gordon Balmer, executive director of the U.K. Petrol Retailers Association, said in a statement. “With regular restocks taking place, this percentage is likely to improve further over the next 24 hours.”
The easing of the shortages reduces the likelihood that Army truck drivers will be deployed to distribute fuel around the country. Still, the scene on London’s streets early on Tuesday suggested the crisis still had some way to run. From Woodford New Road in north London to the Albert Embankment opposite Parliament and Sevenoaks on the city’s southern fringes, many sites still had no fuel.
Locations that did have supplies were experiencing strong demand. At one BP Plc station in southwest London, a truck was in the process of unloading its fuel cargo as a line of about fifty cars waited for it finish.
“I would really urge everybody to go about their business in the normal way and fill up in the normal way when you really need it,” Johnson said.
The U.K.’s biggest fuel suppliers indicated it remains a challenge to restore smooth operations. Tesco Plc and Wm Morrison Supermarkets Plc said in separate statements that it still required hard work to ensure adequate supplies of fuel to their service stations.
J Sainsbury Plc said it was experiencing high demand and Exxon Mobil Corp. asked customers to “stick to their normal buying patterns.”
‘Just About Coping’
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps appeared to blame the public for the shortages, though he also acknowledged the lack of truck drivers, when he said the system was “just about coping” before anxiety set in. “The sooner we can all return to our normal buying habits, the sooner the situation will return to normal.”
The shortages have triggered concerns about key services being disrupted if staff are not able to fill up and travel to work.
In addition to putting the Army on alert, ministers have announced 5,000 short-term visas for foreign truck drivers -- a U-turn on Johnson’s Brexit policy -- and suspended competition rules to allow suppliers to coordinate deliveries.
The negative headlines for the government have also coincided with a growing focus in the U.K. on the surging cost of living, with electricity prices rising just as key pandemic support measures come to an end.
Still, the latest official data on U.K. gas prices offered some respite. The price of a liter of unleaded petrol inched up just 0.3 pence to 135.19 pence ($1.84) per liter in the week through Monday.
©2021 Bloomberg L.P.