LONDON (Reuters) -Britain on Friday vowed to do whatever it takes to resolve a trucker shortage that has closed petrol stations and strained supermarket supply chains to breaking point but the haulage industry cautioned that there were no quick fixes.
Just as the world’s fifth largest economy emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic, a spike in European natural gas prices and a post-Brexit shortage of truck drivers has left Britain grappling with soaring energy prices and a potential food supply crunch.
BP temporarily closed some of its 1,200 UK petrol stations due to a lack of both unleaded and diesel grades, which it blamed on driver shortages. ExxonMobil’s Esso said a small number of its 200 Tesco Alliance retail sites had also been impacted.
Queues formed at some petrol stations in London and the southern English county of Kent on Friday as motorists rushed to fill up, Reuters reporters said.
For months supermarkets and farmers have warned that a shortage of truck drivers was straining supply chains to breaking point – making it harder to get goods onto shelves.
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said there was a global shortage of truckers after COVID halted lorry driver testing so Britain was doubling the number of tests. Asked if the government would ease visa rules, he said the government would look at all options.
“We’ll do whatever it takes,” Shapps told Sky News. “We’ll move heaven and earth to do whatever we can to make sure that shortages are alleviated with HGV drivers.”
“We should see it smooth out fairly quickly,” he said.
Hauliers and logistics companies cautioned that there were no quick fixes and that any change to testing or visas would likely be too late to alleviate the pre-Christmas shortages as retailers stockpile months ahead.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government has insisted that there will be no return to the 1970s when Britain was cast by allies as the “sick man of Europe” with three-day weeks, energy shortages and rampant inflation.
But as ministers urged the public not to panic buy, some of Britain’s biggest supermarkets have warned that a shortage of truck drivers could lead to just that ahead of Christmas.
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro said that Johnson, whom he met in New York, had asked him for an “emergency” agreement to supply a food product that is lacking in Britain, though the British embassy disputed Bolsonaro’s account.
Such is the strain on the supply chain, McDonald’s had to take milkshakes and bottled drinks off the menu at its British restaurants in August and chicken chain Nando’s ran out of chicken.
Suppliers have warned that there could be more shortages of petrol because of a lack of drivers to transport fuel from refineries to retail outlets.
The trucking industry body, the Road Haulage Association, has called on the government to allow short-term visas for international drivers to enter Britain and fill the gap, while British drivers are being trained for the future.
“It’s an enormous challenge,” Rod McKenzie, head of policy at the RHA, told Reuters. In the short-term he said international drivers could help, even if it may be too late to help Christmas, and in the longer term the industry needed better pay and conditions to attract workers.
“It’s a tough job. We the British do not help truckers in the way that Europeans and Americans do by giving them decent facilities,” he said.
The British haulage industry says it needs around 100,000 more drivers after 25,000 returned to Europe before Brexit and the pandemic halted the qualification process for new workers.
Shapps, who said the driver shortage was not due to Brexit, said COVID-19 exacerbated the problem given that Britain was unable to test 40,000 drivers during lockdowns.
“It’s a bit of a global problem so it’s not immediately obvious that opening up visas would actually resolve the problem,” he told Times Radio.
Additional reporting by Gerhard Mey, Kate Holton, Michael Holden and Paul Sandle; Writing by Guy Faulconbridge; Editing by Toby Chopra