A common sight from around Wednesday 22 September onwards has been mounting queues at petrol stations in the UK and increasing forecourts closing shop due to excessive demand to preserve fuel supplies or having been rinsed dry by consumers.  

The cause 

Within the UK, there is not a fuel shortage so to speak. More accurately, there is a lack in numbers of HGV drivers to transport petrol and diesel to forecourts around the nation and meet rising demand. This shortage has also been felt in terms of food supplies with reports of empty shelves in supermarkets for some products. The situation is exaggerated by the specialist, complex nature to training for this job role – for instance, a qualification in delivering hazardous substances is a requirement of the role.  

This gap in the delivery of supply has resulted in an increased demand for fuel as so- called ‘panic-buying’ of fuel becomes a more prevalent trend among the public to exaggerate the issue more so.  

The reaction by the UK government 

On Monday 27 September, the UK government announced that they are temporarily exempting the industry from application of the Competition Act 1998. This move, known as the Downstream Oil Protocol, aims to make it easier for oil firms to prioritise delivery of fuel to those areas most in need through information sharing between stakeholders in the supply chain and the government.  

Added to this, the government have also introduced 300 short term visas for overseas HGV drivers, skills bootcamps to train a maximum of 3,000 more people for the role and increased HGV testing. The military are also being mobilised to assist in bridging the gap.  

The Petrol Retailers Association have responded that these planned measures will not resolve “ultra-short term” issues facing the industry as a result of the rush to the forecourt by the public.  

To detail further, the temporary visa scheme appeal is planned to provide 300 visas for a three-month duration until Christmas eve for HGV drivers to work in the UK. In a similar vein, 5,500 visas will be offered specifically to poultry workers until the end of the year (date subject to further extension) to help alleviate pressures on food supply in the lead up to Christmas – seen evidently in the gap in the supply of Nando’s chicken in August.  

Interestingly, the government have emphasised that this reliance on overseas drivers will be temporary. Instead, they are focussing on increasing investment in the UK workforce to ensure instances in the previous months, and the most recent fuel supply crisis, do not reoccur. Reform has been prioritised over relaxing visa requirements.  

Comment  

For now, it appears clear that there is a gap in the current UK HGV and food lorry driver workforce to tackle the gaps of supply in fuel and some food items. Short term reliance on overseas workforce should help the UK to lessen this gap. However, this will depend on the strong uptake of visas. On 5 October 2021, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said that only 127 out of a possible 300 overseas drivers had applied to the temporary visa scheme at that point in time. Reasonings behind this less than 50% uptake should be assessed.  

We will continue to monitor the situation and review the pace and effectiveness of the government’s reforms in this industry. The common goal among us all being to ensure gaps in supply post-Brexit do not become a common phenomenon. 

October 2021