Explainer

What’s Causing the U.K. Fuel Crisis?

One part Brexit and one part coronavirus have derailed Britain’s transportation system—and given the government a huge headache.

By , an intern at Foreign Policy.
Drivers line up for fuel in London.
Drivers line up for fuel at a Tesco garage in London on Sept. 26. Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images

Long lines of people at gas stations anxiously waiting to fill up their cars has become an unnerving reality in the United Kingdom in recent days, giving the government a black eye and sparking fears of another winter of discontent. As many as two-thirds of the Petrol Retailers Association’s nearly 5,500 independent retail outlets ran out of fuel as of Monday, with the rest following soon. 

But it’s not actually a fuel shortage—it’s a labor shortage. For the last few months, a shortage of over 100,000 qualified truck drivers, also known as heavy goods vehicle drivers, has disrupted many industries such as food and fuel, causing ripple effects in grocery stores, restaurants, and now gas stations. 

Is it because of COVID-19? Is it because of Brexit? There’s a little bit of everything behind the mess. But beyond the political upheaval, it’s bringing the country to a standstill.

Long lines of people at gas stations anxiously waiting to fill up their cars has become an unnerving reality in the United Kingdom in recent days, giving the government a black eye and sparking fears of another winter of discontent. As many as two-thirds of the Petrol Retailers Association’s nearly 5,500 independent retail outlets ran out of fuel as of Monday, with the rest following soon. 

But it’s not actually a fuel shortage—it’s a labor shortage. For the last few months, a shortage of over 100,000 qualified truck drivers, also known as heavy goods vehicle drivers, has disrupted many industries such as food and fuel, causing ripple effects in grocery stores, restaurants, and now gas stations. 

Is it because of COVID-19? Is it because of Brexit? There’s a little bit of everything behind the mess. But beyond the political upheaval, it’s bringing the country to a standstill.

What’s causing the fuel crisis?

Though the trucker shortage has been a problem in many other European countries, the U.K. has been hit particularly hard. Most fingers, especially in Europe, point directly at Brexit as the culprit. Tax changes and new, tightened immigration laws have made it more difficult and time-consuming for European Union nationals to move in and out of the country for work. Many foreign workers are seeking other less strict destinations, not just truckers.

Still, the COVID-19 pandemic has not made things any easier. With the travel restrictions and stay-at-home orders of the past year and a half, many non-U.K. resident workers retired early or sought less demanding employment options. With most going back to their home countries, the vast majority haven’t returned, and they are not expected to, either. Lockdowns have also closed driving centers, which means there were fewer driver tests for truckers, which in turn means there were 25,000 fewer candidates able to pass their test last year compared to the year before. 

So what sparked this total collapse now? 

Last week, BP, the big oil and gas company, announced it had to temporarily close some of its gas stations due to delivery issues of unleaded and diesel fuel. Though only a handful of other oil companies had similar woes, the warning sparked panic buying, which further exacerbated the shortages and caused fuel to run out at gas stations. 

“There’s been a shortage [of drivers] for a very long time, so this is nothing new. But as soon as you say to people, ‘There’s a shortage,’ people tend to react,” Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said. BP, Shell, and other big fuel suppliers insisted in a joint statement Monday that there is plenty of fuel and that they expect demand—and panic buying—to fall off in coming days.

In the meantime, though, it’s taking a political toll, exacerbated by record-high energy prices and the collapse of many small electricity providers. Most Britons are critical of the government’s handling of the affair, and Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s polling lead over his Labor Party rival has evaporated amid fears of a return to the 1970s-style “winter of discontent.

What has been done? 

In an effort to defuse the crisis, Johnson responded to industry demands by offering temporary visas to foreign truckers—a move met with discontent by some die-hard Brexiteers who especially hated the free movement associated with EU membership. The temporary visa plan also didn’t sit well with some European drivers who got burned by Brexit, either, expecting they’ll be left in the lurch again as soon as this crisis passes.

On Sept. 25, the government announced a series of measures to ease the situation, which included a relaxation of competition rules so that fuel companies could pool information and try to head off shortages, as well as new and expansive training programs and encouraging existing drivers who hold the special license to get back behind the wheel. But there are still fewer truckers than are needed to get everything including food and fuel delivered. 

What comes next? 

Johnson was reportedly mulling using the Army to provide drivers to ferry the tanker trucks around the country and refill pumps at gas stations, part of Operation Escalin, an existing contingency plan under the Ministry of Defense put in place in the event of a fuel supply crisis. But other government officials said Army troops would only be used to help alleviate the driver-training backlog. In any event, the shortage, industry experts note, points to a bigger issue, and one that is largely tied to improving the way drivers are treated. 

It also points to one of the perils of the entire Brexit adventure: Losing a pool of European labor that is vital to make the country run was never going to be a recipe for stability, even if it was popular with the take-back-the-borders crowd that propelled Johnson to office.

Zinya Salfiti is an intern at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @zinyasalfitii

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