Table of Contents

  • The UK has experienced an extraordinary petrol crisis in recent days, initially caused by a shortage of Heavy Goods Vehicle (HGV) drivers.
  • None of the government’s measures are guaranteed to bring in enough drivers in the next week or two, although some may help in the next month or two.
  • Looking ahead, the government’s previous view that no sectors should be allowed special treatment on immigration might have to be diluted.

Reasons

There is a European shortage of HGV drivers. However, in a survey of HGV drivers on why they had left the UK or left their roles, the two reasons most frequently given were drivers retiring and the UK leaving the EU, with tax changes third, and pay rates and Covid in fifth and sixth place. To this should be added the failure of the UK government to take action after June when they were warned by the UK road haulage industry about looming driver shortages.

The government actively resisted and refused to allow thousands more visas for European HGV drivers to come to the UK. As previously discussed, this was refused because the point of Brexit was that UK nationals should be encouraged through higher pay and better conditions to take up these roles. Pay rates are now rising rapidly but this will take months and years to increase the supply of HGV drivers – and the UK needs them in days. Therefore, the government will now allow up to 5,000 new visas for European HGV drivers between now and Christmas.

The government has also speeded up the provision of HGV driver tests to enable more people to get qualified more quickly; put the army is on standby in case army HGV drivers need to be involved to prevent the crisis from lasting even longer; suspended competition law in this area to allow sharing of information between the energy companies to reduce shortages and; it is writing to 1mn retired HGV drivers asking them to come back into the job. Overall, this crisis shows that while the UK could just about weather Brexit and Covid, it could not ultimately handle both at the same time when supply chains and labour markets have not had resilience and spare capacity built in.

Prospects

None of the measures are guaranteed to bring in enough drivers in the next week or two, although some may help in the next month or two. The fact that consumers who filled up their tanks over the weekend will not need to fill up again for several days may help to ease the crisis in the middle of this week. Some in the fuel industry have now stated that they believe the problem will ease in the coming days. But if the problem persists after a few more days, the government may be forced to bring the army in to drive trucks – but even that is not an immediate silver bullet because army drivers need to be trained for the specific job at hand.

Perhaps the most likely outcome is that problems will persist for the next week or two but that they may reduce to an inconvenience rather than a crisis as the distribution system flexes to share drivers better, consumers start to be more careful about rushing out to refill if they do not need to and a few new drivers enter the market because of the government’s various initiatives.

Implications

The Government’s popularity and ratings are likely to be negatively affected. One poll showed that Sir Keir Starmer has for the first time equalled Boris Johnson in polling as who would be best prime minister – the first time a Labour leader has done that since 2008. Polling also suggests that the public – including a majority of Leave voters – do blame the government and Brexit alongside Covid for the crisis.

Beyond the politics, there may be more of a change in the government’s attitude to those industries who have complained long and hard about labour shortages in sectors like HGV drivers, meat packing, abbatoirs, warehouse workers, fruit pickers, care workers, vets, etc. All of these sectors face severe labour shortages that have been exacerbated by Brexit and Covid. The government’s view was previously that no sectors should be allowed special treatment on immigration. But there are already shortages of some items in supermarkets and the industry fears that supplies in the run-up to Christmas will be affected. It was noticeable that the government is also allowing in another 5,000 poultry workers from the EU on special visas – there needs to be more workers in advance of Christmas lunch.

The government also faces the major risk of a’cost of living crisis’ as inflation rises, gas prices have spiked massively, furlough ends and universal credit gets back to pre-Covid levels. The fear among the Tories is that there could be a’winter of discontent’ in the run-up to and after Christmas where multiple crises mean that the government’s reputation for competence is lost and cannot be recovered. While Starmer has not made a breakthrough yet, he is making Labour more centrist and electable than it was under Corbyn with some major party rule changes just accepted at the party conference.

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UK: Reasons, prospects, and implications of the fuel crisis

The UK has experienced an extraordinary petrol crisis in recent days, initially caused by a shortage of Heavy Goods Vehicle (HGV) drivers. None of