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UK fuel crisis exposes systemic recruitment flaws

Jo Harper
October 1, 2021

As gas stations across the UK ran dry after panic-buying, many claimed it was a consequence of Brexit and the exodus of EU truck drivers. This clearly didn't help, but the UK's problem of recruiting drivers goes deeper.

Man standing next to closed fuel pumps in London
Was the fuel shortage at the pumps in the UK just a result of panic buying?Image: Frank Augstein/AP/picture alliance

The UK government has said the nation's gas station crisis, caused by a shortage of truck drivers, is no longer an issue. 

"The crisis is now absolutely something which is back under control," said the chief secretary to the Treasury, Simon Clarke, on Thursday, while Transport Secretary Grant Shapps urged people to "carry on as normal." 

But many pumps remained closed, and large numbers of health service staff, including doctors, were still unable to get to work, according to the British Medical Association.

The Petrol Retailers Association (PRA) said Wednesday that 27% of its members were out of fuel, down from two-thirds of its membership of 5,500 independent outlets three days earlier. The UK has a total of more than 8,000 filling stations.

Still some fuel delivery delays

Gordon Balmer, executive director of the PRA, told DW that some sites were still experiencing delays, particularly in London and the southeast of England. Fuel stocks are normal at refineries and terminals, but deliveries have been cut due to the shortage of heavy goods vehicle drivers, according to a PRA statement.

The fuel giant BP said in a statement it was seeing "intense demand" and that roughly 30% of the 1,200 sites it supplied across the UK did not have either of the main types of fuel. Pump prices also hit their highest level in eight years on Monday.

But despite calling for calm, the government also unveiled emergency measures last weekend, including issuing temporary work visas for 5,500 foreign truck drivers and suspending the UK's anti-monopolies law to enable suppliers to get fuel to rival operators. Prime Minister Boris Johnson was also reportedly considering calling in the army.

'People are buying petrol when they don't need it'

Environment Secretary George Eustice said the shortage of drivers was "not a huge problem," adding that "the only reason we don't have petrol on forecourts is that people are buying petrol when they don't need it." 

Some others agree. "This rush to buy fuel has happened on a handful of occasions in the past. It follows a very predictable pattern where fear of not being able to get fuel starts queues and then gets out of hand," Luke Bosdet, a spokesperson for the Automobile Association (AA), told DW.

"Difficulties in supplying a very few fuel stations had been happening for more than two weeks, but it had gone on with barely anyone noticing," Bosdet said.

"The details of an internal meeting between the government and firms in the road fuel supply sector were leaked to national television, and what had been highlighted as a problem affecting one particular fuel company became magnified as a bigger and wider problem. And when that got out, the drivers started to queue."

Labor shortages contribute to crisis

But the problems run far deeper. The government said it would issue 5,000 visas to foreign drivers, but that is still way below the 100,000 heavy goods vehicle (HGV) drivers the country needs, according to the Road Haulage Association (RHA).

Ruby McGregor-Smith, the president of the British Chambers of Commerce, said the decision was akin to "throwing a thimble of water on a bonfire."

"Without further action, we now face the very real prospect of serious damage to our economic recovery, stifled growth as well as another less-than-happy Christmas for many businesses and their customers across the country," she said in a statement.

The haulage industry has blamed the shortage of truck drivers on a post-Brexit exodus of European drivers, with about 25,000 HGV drivers from the EU leaving during 2020 and not returning.

BP and Exxon Mobil Corp. both said this week that a driver shortage had affected operations at their gas stations.

In August, the UK government said that "most of the solutions" to the crisis would need to come from the industry itself and that the UK should not rely on workers from outside the country.

Tony Danker, director-general of the employers' association, the Confederation of British Industry, said "there are labor shortages across the economy, and of course, the government is right that in the long run, we can't simply turn to immigration to solve those problems. But in the short run, there is no solution other than to look that way."

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps, meanwhile, insisted that leaving the EU was not a factor, claiming that it has in fact helped "provide a solution" to the problem. "There are even larger shortages in other EU countries like Poland and Germany, which clearly can't be because of Brexit," he told Sky News.

Other countries also struggling

Poland is currently short of around 124,000 drivers, or 37% of its required workforce, according to a recent report by TI Insight.

Data from the UK's statistics office, the ONS, show the total number of truck drivers in the UK fell from 304,000 in the first quarter of 2020 to 235,000 in the second quarter of 2021, a net loss of 69,000. Logistics UK estimates the country is now approximately 90,000 drivers short.

The number of EU drivers rose from 10,000 in 2010 to 45,000 in 2017. But, according to ONS data, the loss of EU drivers is not a minor cause of the shortage. At the start of 2020, there were 37,000 EU drivers in the UK. Now, there are 24,500 — 12,500 fewer. Given that almost 70,000 HGV drivers — both from the UK and EU — left the industry during the pandemic, 12,500 represents 18% of those exiting.

In a report published this week, the logistics think tank Driver Require concluded that "EU drivers leaving the UK did not significantly contribute to the current shortage."

Over 55,000 domestic drivers have left the industry during the last 18 months. Retirement, a lack of driving tests during the pandemic and tax changes have all been cited as causes.

HGV drivers are an aging workforce, with less than 1% in the UK under 25, according to the Road Haulage Association. "The average age of a truck driver in the UK is 57; every day this problem is just getting worse as more and more retire," said Rod McKenzie, managing director of policy and public affairs at the RHA.

This means the rate of retirement has risen over the past decade from 7,500 per year in 2010 to 10,000 per year in 2020, according to Driver Require. This is about 4% of the workforce retiring each year.

In pre-pandemic times, this was offset by new entrants into the industry. European drivers became a key part of the industry, topping up the workforce and giving flexibility at times of increased demand.

A motorist is pictured after refueling at a Shell petrol station
Being able to refuel your car came close to a miracle across the UK some days agoImage: ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP

Unions say thanks, but no thanks

"The EU workers we speak to will not go to the UK for a short-term visa to help the UK out of the s**t they created themselves," said Edwin Atema, head of research and enforcement at the Netherlands-based FNV union, which represents drivers across the bloc.

The industry is "plagued by exploitation, by irresponsible multinationals who dragged down prices, which ended with drivers voting with their feet, simply leaving the industry," he told reporters. "Pay is an important area but not the only area. People in Europe and across Europe have completely lost trust in this industry," Atema said.

Working conditions are also better in France, Germany and Belgium than in the UK thanks to laws, for example, that make it illegal to work on Sundays. "I will never go back. I like England, it's a great country. But to work, the way they treat people? Never again," one driver told the Financial Times.