Grant Shapps today claimed the fuel crisis has been ‘manufactured’ as he accused haulage firms of sparking panic buying after they warned of HGV driver shortages.
The Transport Secretary said ‘there is plenty of fuel’ to go around as he urged motorists to be ‘sensible’ and to ‘fill up when you normally would’.
He said the rush to forecourts which has seen lengthy queues at stations across the country ‘will come to an end’ because soon ‘everyone’s cars will be more or less filled up’.
Mr Shapps said the chaos is a ‘manufactured situation’ in comments likely to spark fury among retailers and transport bosses.
It came as experts warned panic buying ‘is going to get worse before it gets better’ as the nation faces a ‘catastrophic situation’.
Grant Shapps today claimed the fuel crisis has been ‘manufactured’ as he accused haulage firms of sparking panic buying after they warned of HGV driver shortages
The Transport Secretary said ‘there is plenty of fuel’ to go around as he urged motorists to be ‘sensible’ and to ‘fill up when you normally would’
Experts warned panic buying ‘is going to get worse before it gets better’ as the nation faces a ‘catastrophic situation’
There is an estimated shortfall of 90,000 HGV drivers in the UK freight sector.
The Government has announced plans to offer 5,000 three-month visas to foreign lorry drivers in a short term bid to ease pressure on supply chains.
The announcement came after scenes of lengthy queues at petrol stations after a shortage of fuel tanker drivers forced some retailers to shut their pumps and ration sales.
The British Retail Consortium and the British Chamber of Commerce criticised the scope of the measures revealed by Mr Shapps yesterday which were seen by some as a step back from Boris Johnson’s stated ambition to create a high-wage, high-skilled post-Brexit economy.
Mr Shapps today insisted there is ‘plenty’ of petrol as he urged motorists to refrain from panic buying.
He told Sky News there had been some ‘pretty irresponsible briefing’ by one of the road haulage associations ‘which has helped spark a crisis’.
He said: ‘I do not believe… that the long term solution to Britain’s shortages of HGV drivers is to say the only choice we have is to import the European drivers, under cut British salaries and not skill up people to do the job here in the United Kingdom so that is absolutely right.
‘I also recognise and am completely pragmatic about this, that we need to ensure that people are reassured now that this rather sort of manufactured situation has been created because as I say there is enough petrol in the country, it is if everyone goes and buys it on the same day…’
Presenter Trevor Phillips interrupted and said: ‘Hang on. When you say this was a manufactured situation, manufactured by whom? How?’
Mr Shapps replied: ‘Well, as I say, there was a meeting that took place about 10 days ago, a private meeting in which one of the haulage associations decided to leak the details to the media and that has created, as we have seen, quite a large degree of concern, people naturally react to those things.
‘The good news is, as I say, there is plenty of fuel. The bad news is if everyone carries on buying it when they don’t need it then you would continue to have queues.
‘Sooner or later everyone’s cars will be more or less filled up and there won’t be anywhere else to put fuel – it is not like the toilet roll crisis at the beginning of the pandemic where people could stockpile it. It is very difficult to do that with fuel and so it will come to an end.
‘But we just appeal to people to be sensible, fill up when you normally would.’
Retail bosses fear the panic buying will continue as motorists continue the rush to the pumps.
Brian Madderson, chairman of the Petrol Retailers Association, told Sky News that the ‘situation is going to get worse before it gets better’ as he described the panic buying as a ‘catastrophic situation’.
It came amid reports that one of the UK’s main oil refineries is on the brink of collapse.
The Times reported that the the Stanlow oil refinery in Ellesmere Port, responsible for about one sixth of the UK’s road fuel, is in talks with the Government.
Retailers have previously warned the Government that it had just 10 days to save Christmas from ‘significant disruption’ due to the shortfall of HGV drivers.
Mr Shapps said the rush to forecourts which has seen lengthy queues at stations across the country ‘will come to an end’ because soon ‘everyone’s cars will be more or less filled up’.
5,000 HGV drivers and 5,500 poultry workers will be given extraordinary three-month visas allowing them to work in the UK until Christmas Eve
British Chamber of Commerce president Baroness McGregor-Smith said consumers and businesses faced ‘another less than happy Christmas’ due to the visa offer being ‘insufficient’.
The Conservative peer said: ‘Even if these short-term opportunities attract the maximum amount of people allowed under the scheme, it will not be enough to address the scale of the problem that has now developed in our supply chains.
‘This announcement is the equivalent of throwing a thimble of water on a bonfire.’
Andrew Opie, a director at the British Retail Consortium, said the limit of 5,000 HGV visas would do ‘little to alleviate the current shortfall’ and called for visas to be extended to ‘all sectors of the retail industry’.
He added: ‘Supermarkets alone have estimated they need at least 15,000 HGV drivers for their businesses to be able to operate at full capacity ahead of Christmas and avoid disruption or availability issues.’
The relaxation of immigration rules was welcomed by other industry groups, however, with Food and Drink Federation chief Ian Wright calling the measures ‘pragmatic’, while Logistics UK said it showed Government had listened to hauliers’ concerns.
Richard Walker, managing director at Iceland supermarket, called the announcement ‘critical’ and pushed for shop staff and other key workers to be fast-tracked past petrol pump queues.
The supermarket boss said: ‘Until this eases, key workers including food retail workers need to be prioritised at the pumps so that we can keep hospitals operating and food shops open, and the nation safe and fed.’
As well as the visa changes, the Department for Transport (DfT) said it planned to train 4,000 more lorry drivers through both a £10million investment in skills camps and established adult education budgets, with some of those studying for HGV licences eligible to have their courses paid for by the state.
Meanwhile, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) will be stepping in to provide examiners for lorry driving tests as ministers look to steadily increase the size of the workforce.
Officials said the loan of MoD examiners to work alongside Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency (DVSA) employees would help put on ‘thousands of extra tests’ over the next 12 weeks.
The coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated a global shortage of lorry drivers, although there have been long-term issues in the UK with vacancy numbers amid an ageing workforce, low wages and poor truck stop conditions.
In a drive to encourage people to return to the industry, nearly one million letters will be landing on the doormats of people with HGV licences in the coming days enticing them to give the job another go.
The letter will set out the steps the haulage sector is taking to improve industry conditions, including increased wages, flexible working and fixed hours, according to the DfT.
Officials said the Government was focused on raising pay and improving working conditions and diversity of the workforce, rather than relying on cheap foreign workers to fill vacancies in the long run.
The DfT said it recognised that importing foreign labour ‘will not be the long term solution’ to the problem and that it wanted to see investment poured into establishing a robust domestic workforce.