Motorists in the UK are being advised to “keep a quarter of a tank” of fuel in their vehicles as a shortage of HGV drivers causes disruption to deliveries.
The Petrol Retailers Association issued the warning after BP announced it was rationing fuel deliveries and closing some of its filling stations because of the crisis.
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps urged people to “carry on as normal” on Friday and said the government will “move heaven and earth” to alleviate the chronic shortage of qualified drivers.
The Times reported that ministers have drawn up contingency plans, known as Operation Escalin, which would see soldiers deployed to drive fuel tankers. The plan would be enacted only if the situation deteriorated significantly.
Ministers are being pressured to relax immigration rules as an emergency measure to attract HGV drivers from overseas amid warnings that 100,000 more were needed across the industry.
Mr Shapps suggested that adding HGV drivers to the skilled worker list for immigration purposes would not solve the problem, but said the idea would not be ruled out.
He claimed that clearing the backlog in driving tests available for people in the UK would be most effective at solving the problem.
He batted away reports suggesting that he and Home Secretary Priti Patel had resisted Environment Secretary George Eustice on a plan to bring in overseas workers to solve shortages.
Mr Shapps told Sky News: “I’ll look at everything and we’ll move heaven and earth to do what we can to make sure that shortages are alleviated with HGV drivers.
“But we really need to look at the things which make a difference and the big problem is the testing of drivers coming in.”
Asked if he would offer visas for overseas drivers, he said he was “absolutely not ruling anything out at all”, but stressed that the aim was to “see this problem resolved but I want to see it resolved for the long term, not just a short-term fix which ends up exacerbating the long term as well”.
He said the Covid pandemic is the “principal cause” of the shortage of qualified HGV drivers in the UK because tests had to be cancelled.
He said anyone blaming Brexit was wrong because leaving the EU had made it possible for ministers to change laws and alter driving test rules to allow more slots to become available.
Mr Shapps said “we’re working very hard to change the laws in order to provide more tests for HGV drivers, encouraging people to come back into the market”.
“I welcome the fact that lorry drivers are able to attract a better salary and that’s what we need, including better conditions as well,” he said.
The government has moved to streamline the testing system and Mr Shapps promised an extra 50,000 tests a year.
His comments came after BP said a handful of its filling stations are closed because of a lack of fuel available, while Esso owner ExxonMobil also said a “small number” of its Tesco Alliance petrol forecourts have been affected.
The issues around petrol supply, on top of problems in the food industry and rising gas prices have led to warnings the government faces a “winter of discontent”.
During the pandemic, 14,000 drivers left to go to their country of residence, with only about 600 having returned since.
Rod McKenzie of the Road Haulage Association trade body accused ministers of “government by inertia”, allowing the situation to get “gradually worse” in recent months.
“We have a shortage of 100,000 [drivers],” he told BBC’s Newsnight.
“When you think that everything we get in Britain comes on the back of a lorry – whether it’s fuel or food or clothes or whatever it is – at some point, if there are no drivers to drive those trucks, the trucks aren’t moving and we’re not getting our stuff.
“I don’t think we are talking about absolutely no fuel or food or anything like that, people shouldn’t panic buy food or fuel or anything else, that’s not what this is about.
“This is about stock outs, it’s about shortages, it’s about a normal supply chain being disrupted.”
He said a “very short-term” measure would be to allow drivers on to the shortage occupation list and “seasonal visas” for foreign drivers.
Richard Walker, the managing director of Iceland, said the supermarket chain was about 100 drivers short of what it needed.
Mr Walker backed calls for a relaxation of immigration rules to attract overseas drivers.
“I think the solution – even if it’s temporary – is very, very simple. Let’s get HGV drivers on to the skilled worker list,” he said.
BP told the government in a meeting last Thursday that the company’s ability to transport fuel from refineries to its network of forecourts was faltering.
The company's head of UK retail, Hanna Hofer, said it was important the government understood the “urgency of the situation”, which she described as “bad, very bad”, according to a report by ITV News.
She said that BP had “two thirds of normal forecourt stock levels required for smooth operations” and the level is “declining rapidly”.
Meanwhile, an ExxonMobil spokesman said: “A small number of our 200 Tesco Alliance retail sites are impacted.
“We are working closely with all parties in our distribution network to optimise supplies and minimise any inconvenience to customers.”
A Tesco spokeswoman said: “We have good availability of fuel, with deliveries arriving at our petrol filling stations across the UK every day.”
A government spokeswoman said: “There is no shortage of fuel in the UK, and people should continue to buy fuel as normal.”
Annaliese Dodds said people in the UK had been served a “triple hammer blow” with the fuel crisis, the rise in national insurance and the cut to Universal Credit payments.
The government has said there will be a 1.25 percentage point national insurance hike for workers and employers as a means to raise £12 billion ($16.46 billion).
And a £20 uplift in Universal Credit, a benefit for working-age people, will end.
The government is under growing pressure to drop the plan amid warnings that poverty levels could surge.
Ms Dodds, chairman of the Labour Party, said: “I think there are families up and down the country who are really concerned about this.
“Of course they’re looking at their family finances, anticipating or already been impacted by those increases in fuel costs.
“Of course they’ll also see national insurance going up now as well potentially Universal Credit being cut if they’re one of those many families in the UK who are working and having to top that up with Universal Credit.”