Ministers faced fresh pressure to ease immigration rules as an emergency measure to attract HGV drivers from overseas amid warnings that 100,000 more were needed across the industry.
BP said a “handful” of its filling stations are closed due to a lack of fuel available, while Esso owner ExxonMobil also said a “small number” of its Tesco Alliance petrol forecourts have been impacted.
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps suggested adding HGV drivers to the skilled worker list for immigration purposes would not solve the problem, although he insisted he nothing had been ruled out.
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”.
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A combination of factors including Brexit leading to the loss of European Union drivers, the pandemic preventing driving tests and systemic problems in the industry relating to pay and conditions have led to the shortage of qualified HGV drivers.
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 got 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.”
Mr McKenzie added: “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 onto the shortage occupation list and “seasonal visas” for foreign drivers.
Richard Walker, the managing director of Iceland, said the supermarket chain was around 100 drivers short of what it needed and echoed the call for a temporary change to immigration rules.
“I think the solution – even if it’s temporary – is very, very simple. Let’s get HGV drivers onto the skilled worker list,” he said.
The Transport Secretary, appearing alongside Mr Walker on Question Time, said “if that was actually the solution I’m sure we’d move to it very quickly and I don’t rule out anything”.
But “this is a global problem, it has come directly as a consequence of coronavirus”.
The Government has moved to streamline the testing system and Mr Shapps promised an extra 50,000 tests a year.
Labour’s shadow justice secretary David Lammy said: “What we are looking at is a winter of discontent. We have shortages of staff, shortages of supply and shortages of skills.”
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 firm’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 added 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.”
Gordon Balmer, an executive director at the Petrol Retailers Association, which represents independent forecourts across the UK, recommended that motorists keep enough fuel in the tank to reach alternative filling stations in the “rare instance” that fuel is not available at the first one they visit.
Speaking to ITV’s Good Morning Britain on Friday, Mr Balmer offered accelerated training for workers and calling on ex-military staff to fill vacancies as potential other options to help alleviate the strain on the industry.
The HGV sector has been struggling with recruitment in recent months and the issue has already hit supermarkets, with shelves half full and grocers forced to increase salaries and introduce signing on bonuses to fill gaps.
It has spread to waste collection services, with some councils cancelling bin collections as drivers have taken more lucrative jobs elsewhere.
Mr Walker said Iceland was “fully stocked” but as a specialist in frozen foods it was spared some of the issues facing other retailers.
“It’s coming at us from all angles at the moment,” he said. “We have the CO2 issue, we have HGVs, we have a shortage of workers in factories and fields and processing plants. It’s very difficult out there.”