It’s October 1, 2021, and motorists in the UK are facing a fuel crisis. Over 2,000 British petrol stations were reportedly empty of fuel to start out the day, although that’s apparently an improvement. The Petrol Retailers Association said on September 29 that 27 percent of stations it keeps tabs on had no fuel, which is down from 66 percent earlier in the week. If motorists can find fuel, prices are reportedly at an eight-year high.
What’s the problem? There’s currently a shortage of qualified lorry drivers to deliver fuel to petrol stations, resulting in a bottleneck. There’s also a lot of finger-pointing about why that driver shortage exists, as well. Some European Union politicians point to the 2016 Brexit referendum as the most likely culprit, which British politicians of course deny. Reuters, meanwhile, reports that “tens of thousands of EU truckers left during the Brexit maelstrom,” which seems rather significant.
Fuel companies, of course, say the problem isn’t actually a fuel shortage. Instead, they say, it’s two things: A tanker driver shortage, and the British public panic-buying all the petrol they could get their hands on. A joint statement issued by BP, Royal Dutch Shell, and Exxon Mobil said that “there is plenty of fuel at UK refineries and terminals.”
The fuel industry is, of course, not the only industry that's feeling the effects of a lack of workers at present. Both the pharmaceutical and farming industries are also feeling the pain of the lorry driver shortage, as well as an accompanying meat processing worker shortage in the farming sector.
In the UK, meat processing jobs have mainly been handled by eastern European immigrants for some time, which Brexit severely curtailed. The National Farmers Union says that a potential cull of 150,000 pigs is now a week to ten days away since they can’t be processed in time. Restaurants and grocery stores have also been running out of supplies because there aren’t drivers to supply them.
While Brexit has had a negative impact on the number of EU lorry drivers in the UK, pandemic-related license delays also haven’t made things any easier. The UK’s Road Haulage Association says that at present, the kingdom is down around 100,000 truck drivers in total. It’s no wonder that multiple industries are feeling a number like that at the same time.
Meanwhile, the UK government suggested in August that employers offer improved pay and working conditions for British truck drivers, rather than ease Brexit-related immigration restrictions from EU countries. It’s unclear at this point if companies are considering this option.
With the situation as it exists in September, the British government is now calling upon some 150 qualified military drivers to begin delivering fuel, along with 150 additional support personnel. It also plans to offer 5,000 temporary visas to qualified EU fuel tank and food lorry drivers ahead of the holiday season.
Now, clearly 5,000 < 100,000, no matter what (or who) you’re counting. As workers in many industries can relate, there’s also the added pressure of expecting what workers you do have to pick up the slack when the number of available workers isn’t sufficient to tackle the existing workload. That becomes particularly dangerous when heavy machinery—especially if it involves highly flammable chemicals—is involved.
How this situation will resolve remains to be seen. It’s unclear what will happen, including whether EV retailers will suddenly start offering discounts to entice motorists to make the switch. With the UK’s stated zero-emission vehicle sales goals by 2035, perhaps this situation could have unintended emissions-reducing consequences.