Military tankers take to roads to deliver fuel – but Sunak won't say when crisis will end

4 October 2021, 05:51 | Updated: 4 October 2021, 15:59

Rishi Sunak refused to guarantee the fuel crisis will be over by the end of the week
Rishi Sunak refused to guarantee the fuel crisis will be over by the end of the week. Picture: Alamy

By Daisy Stephens

Military tanker drivers are taking to the roads for the first time to deliver supplies to petrol stations hit by the fuel crisis.

Around 200 military personnel - half of whom are drivers - are being deployed despite ministers insisting the situation at the pumps is easing, with the operation initially targeting London and the South East, where the worst fuel shortages remain.

Speaking to LBC this morning, chancellor Rishi Sunak said the measure was an "extra precaution" and insisted the situation is "improving".

However, he refused to guarantee the crisis would be over by the end of the week.

Downing Street later said fuel supplies returning to normal would depend on demand, with Boris Johnson's spokesman also insisting there are "significant stocks of fuel around the country".

A government spokesperson said of the army deployment: "We are working closely with industry to help increase fuel stocks and there are signs of improvement in average forecourt stocks across the UK with demand continuing to stabilise."

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"Stocks in London and the South of England have been recovering at slightly slower rates than other parts of the UK, so we have begun deploying military personnel to boost supply in these areas.

"More than half of those who have completed training to make fuel deliveries are being deployed to terminals serving London and the South-East of England, demonstrating that the sector is allocating drivers to areas most affected in this first phase from Monday."

London and the South East have only see a "marginal" improvement, with these areas still facing a "challenging" time, the Petrol Retailers Association (PRA) said later on Monday.

The organisation said a survey of a quarter of all independent petrol stations in Great Britain showed around a fifth of these sites around London and the South East remained without fuel.

When it comes to the rest of the country that figure was 8%, said the PRA, adding that 86% of sites surveyed have both petrol and diesel available.

Gordon Balmer, executive director of the PRA, said it is "grateful" that the Government has brought in military drivers to make deliveries but called for more action to address "the needs of disproportionately affected areas".

So-called Operation Escalin is seeing troops deployed who have been on standby since the start of last week.

They include members of 3rd Logistic Support Regiment who have been training with the petroleum industry logistics company Hoyers in Thurrock in Essex.

The Operation was originally drawn up in preparation for possible fuel shortages following Britain's final withdrawal from the EU single market at the start of the year.

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Speaking to LBC's Nick Ferrari, chancellor Mr Sunak said of current supplies: "The good news is, it is getting better.

"So every single day since about last Tuesday, we’ve delivered more petrol to forecourts than has been taken out, the number of people getting deliveries has increased, the volume of fuel getting delivered has increased. About a week ago, almost two-thirds of petrol stations ran out whereas that was down to less than a third a few days ago."

However, when asked by Nick if the crisis will be over by the end of the week, Mr Sunak refused to offer a guarantee.

"It’s hard for me to put a precise day on it," the chancellor said, "because it’s really a function of demand levels.

"As demand levels return to normal levels, the situation will return [to normal] and that’s a hard thing to precisely forecast. But people should know we’re doing everything we can.

"I know it’s frustrating.”

Ministers have faced criticism for not sending the army out earlier after a wave of panic-buying - prompted by reports that supplies to filling stations were being hit - led to chaos on the forecourts.

Last week petrol stations across the country became the scenes of long queues, fights between drivers, and depleted fuel storage units.

The Government has however being deploying its reserve tanker fleet - driven by civilian drivers - since last week in an effort to bolster supplies.

The Petrol Retailers Association (PRA) - representing independent retailers - has welcomed the deployment of the military, although it has suggested it will only have limited impact.

PRA chairman Brian Madderson said while the crisis was "virtually over" in Scotland, the North and the Midlands, more than one-in-five filling stations in London and the South East were out of fuel.

Boris Johnson, attending the opening day of the Tory Party conference in Manchester on Sunday, had expressed confidence the crisis was "abating" and said the military were being deployed as a "precaution".

The Prime Minister however repeatedly refused to rule out shortages in the wider economy in the run up to Christmas.

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As well as an estimated shortfall of 100,000 HGV drivers, businesses from meat producers to retail, have warned of empty shelves if the shortages are not addressed.

Mr Johnson acknowledged the country was going through a "period of adjustment" following Brexit, which has cut off the supply of labour from the EU.

He insisted that he was not prepared to resolve the situation by pulling "the big lever marked uncontrolled immigration" to let in more foreign workers.

He said firms should ensure their employees were "decently paid" if they wanted to get more staff.