Fuelling the Flames of Fear

By Pearce Branigan

Last Thursday, BP and ExxonMobil (who operate Tesco garages through Esso) announced the temporary closure of pumps and several petrol stations across the UK, in a bid to ration fuel deliveries as a result of a lack of HGV drivers. 

Downing Street stressed last week that “there is no shortage of fuel in the UK and people should continue to buy fuel as normal.” Both fuels are apparently at ports and distribution centres across the country; the problem is transporting it from these locations to regional hubs and then, to local petrol stations. 

However, it is a truth most commonly accepted that the very act of denying a crisis or panic, will naturally have the opposite effect in exacerbating one (what is colloquially referred to as ‘the Corporal Jones effect’.) 

Enter the current scenes of punch-ups at petrol stations, garages with ‘No Fuel’ signs displayed and snaking queues as motorist attempt to stock up on fuel ahead of the perceived ‘fuel crisis’. 

The shortage in HGV drivers has been attributed to a number of long-term and short-term factors – ranging from an ageing workforce, poor working conditions and the effects of the pandemic. Undoubtedly, the declining number of drivers from the EU has been a major factor in the current acute shortage.  

The immediate response from the UK government has been to pledge to increase the permit of HGV visas for foreign nationals to increase driver availability in the short term, whilst encouraging the uptake of HGV qualifications in the medium to longer term. 

However, this approach arguably misses a major factor in increasing the supply of drivers. It is not that there is a dearth of interest in a career in haulage that has led to this issue, far from it. There is currently a large backlog of applications for HGV licenses submitted to the Government that have yet to be reviewed. 

Increasing HGV visas for 5,000 foreign nationals may have little effect, reviewing and approving a fraction of the backlog would prove much more meaningful and effective for the long-term in addressing the 100,000 person shortage of HGV drivers in the UK. 

The reason for this backlog is surprisingly unassailable: civil servants employed on ‘non-essential’ administrative functions, such as reviewing HGV licenses, have been reassigned since spring 2020 to support the Government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. As we emerge from the worst of the pandemic and the burden of administration associated with responding to the crisis is no longer critical due to the risks of the virus being lowered due to vaccination rates, personnel will return to their original functions and with normal levels of capacity. We will at that point witness the return of (relatively) efficient government administration and the HGV license backlog should be gradually cleared. 

For the meantime, the best course of action for UK motorists would perhaps be to invoke the wartime motto of ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’, instead of carrying on like the cast of Dad’s Army.