Brexit or pandemic? What’s behind the UK petrol crunch

Queues at petrol pumps remain widespread in the United Kingdom on Wednesday.

Since the weekend, the UK has been gripped by petrol panic buying [Carl Recine/Reuters]

Profanity is uncommon on the rarefied radio waves of the BBC, so any swear words on the network’s flagship news programme, Today on Radio 4, are sure to shock.

So it was perhaps inevitable that some colourful comments made during a segment on the United Kingdom’s petrol crunch this week would go viral.

“The EU workers we speak to,” said Edwin Atema of the Federation of Dutch Trade Unions (FNV, which represents lorry drivers), “will not go to the UK for a short-term visa to help [the] UK out of the shit they created themselves.”

The blunt description captured the underlying tone of much of the international response to the UK government’s plan for addressing labour shortfalls that have left petrol stations dry and supermarkets bare in a rolling supply-chain crisis.

Several experts told Al Jazeera that the crisis is being driven by hiccups in distribution relating to a shortage of lorry drivers, and not a lack of petrol supply. The UK is a net exporter of gasoline, by about 70,000 barrels per day by the end of August this year.

“There is no real change in the supply landscape with regard to the UK’s gasoline situation,” said Kevin Wright, lead analyst at Kpler.

The UK intends to offer up to 10,000 overseas heavy goods vehicle (HGV) drivers visas to work post-Brexit Britain – but experts say few are likely to apply for them because the visas expire on December 24, which is Christmas Eve.

The role of Brexit

Over the weekend, 90 percent of forecourts belonging to members of the UK’s Petrol Retailers Association were empty.

Images capturing the fallout have been compared to the 1970s energy crisis.

Queues stretching for miles at petrol stations across the country. Fistfights at the pumps. Empty shelves in shops. Chaos on gridlocked roads. A nation gripped by the anxiety of shortages.

A delivery driver drops fuel into a petrol station in Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire, Britain, on Wednesday [Carl Recine/Reuters]

How did Britain get into this mess?

“The current fuel crisis has many fathers: an ageing HGV workforce, the impact of COVID driving a shortage in drivers across Europe, and elements of the British media fuelling the panic with doom-mongering headlines,” Mark Shanahan, associate professor of politics at the University of Reading, told Al Jazeera.

Grant Shapps is the UK government’s transport secretary. On Thursday, he told BBC’s Question Time that the driver shortage was a “global problem”.

“It has come directly as a consequence of coronavirus,” he said, before laying out how testing for new HGV drivers had to be suspended during the pandemic.

Yet numbers of British drivers qualified to drive HGVs have been in decline in the UK for at least five years, with former drivers testifying to inhumane working conditions in stories posted to social media.

The UK’s Road Haulage Association wrote to Prime Minister Boris Johnson in June, warning the country was around 100,000 drivers short. “We urge you to take decisive steps to ensure that we can continue to maintain the UK’s integrated and finely balanced supply chains,” said the association.

And then Brexit really kicked in.

“Undoubtedly, some of this shortage of drivers was caused by Brexit and the pandemic,” Kpler’s Wright told Al Jazeera. “Drivers from Eastern Europe, in particular, left the UK in the last two years … The UK government has made it harder for drivers from outside the UK to be employed here.”

This touches on the international interdependence of trade and supply.

“If you impose a national economic shock of raising trade barriers significantly – including to movement of people – on top of global supply-chain strains, then that’s always likely to lead to problems,” said trade expert David Henig, the UK trade policy director of the European Centre For International Political Economy.

“If you do it without any apparent planning, indeed with a belief that all will be fine, and dismiss any issues as being the work of ‘remoaners’, then such problems become all the more likely,” he told Al Jazeera, adding that the UK is the only developed economy suffering petrol and supermarket shortages.

Oil expert Wright noted that Germany and Poland had reported driver shortages too, but told Al Jazeera that “the larger pool of free-moving workers in the EU” limited supply-chain disruptions on the continent.

Shanahan, of the University of Reading, agrees: “It’s notable that the crisis hasn’t extended to Northern Ireland, the one part of the UK still bound by the EU’s single-market rules, where there’s a lot less of a driver shortage and generally more goods getting to the right place at the right time.”

Politics and panic buying

Shapps had spun Brexit as a positive for helping to implement solutions to the crisis. “Because of Brexit, I’ve been able to change the law and alter the way our driving tests operate in a way that I could not have done if we were still part of the EU,” he said.

By Tuesday though, he conceded “Brexit… no doubt will have been a factor” in the crisis.

Such pivots from the Johnson government have likely contributed to the chaos. On Monday morning, four days into the crisis, Secretary of State for Environment George Eustice assured television viewers that the military would not be called in. By Monday evening, however, Defence Secretary Ben Wallace announced “the men and women of our armed forces stand ready” to alleviate the pressures.

Shanahan underscored a stark lack of direct trust in government statements: “Foreign Office Minister James Cleverly tweeted: ‘There is no fuel shortage!’ – which immediately caused queues to form in every UK mainland town and city.”

Panic spreads when there is a fear of the unknown, and a lack of trust in official institutions, according to studies from the early days of the pandemic.

Behavioural science suggests that widespread uncertainty about government policy can play a role in panic purchases, particularly when amplified by media coverage.

“If you believe that others are acting selfishly and anti-socially, then you would be a ‘damned fool’ not to do the same thing. And that is what talk of ‘panic buying’ and endless photos of empty pumps leads you to believe,” Stephen Reicher, professor of psychology at the University of St Andrews, tweeted on Wednesday

What comes next?

“As the queues get longer and supermarket shelves get barer, this feels more like 1951 than 2021,” said Shanahan. “Trust in this government is bound to decline.”

There may, however, be light at the end of the tunnel.

“This current distribution situation will ease when people stop panic buying,” said Wright. “The supply is there; it just needs to be transported from refineries and storage terminals to retail stations.”

BP, Shell and other oil giants issued a joint statement on Monday saying it would all soon blow over: “There is plenty of fuel at UK refineries and terminals, and as an industry we are working closely with the government to help ensure fuel is available to be delivered to stations across the country.”

But on Wednesday morning, queues at the pumps remained widespread amid reports of funerals being cancelled and cancer patients’ appointments being rescheduled.

And the petrol crunch may just be the start of more energy problems for Britain, with UK imports of natural gas falling dramatically in recent months.

“In terms of other energy sectors that may face issues this winter, natural gas is certainly on the radar,” said Wright.

“UK inventories are currently around 54 percent full, which is slightly down on last year’s 62 percent and 71 percent in 2019. The crunch may come, however, from international competition for reduced supply.”

Source: Al Jazeera