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Ministers Set To Decide Within Hours Whether To Deploy Soldiers To Tackle Fuel Crisis

5 min read

The government could decide as soon as today to bring in the army to help abate fuel shortages, with ministers set to hold an urgent meeting about the crisis on Monday.

A government source told PoliticsHome that no decision had yet been made on whether to deploy soldiers, amid several reports overnight that Prime Minister Boris Johnson was considering instructing hundreds to driver tankers to petrol stations across the country.

They said a decision was imminent, however, with an announcement potentially coming in the next few hours.

A nationwide fuel shortage which was first reported last week has worsened signicificantly in recent days, with mass panic buying leading to petrol stations running out. Ministers were warned on Sunday that most petrol stations in England were below 20% stock, according to The Telegraph.

Industry leaders who PoliticsHome spoke to this morning said they have received reports of drivers tailgating tankers for miles in an attempt to find petrol stations with supplies.

This is despite Downing Street urging the public to buy petrol as they normally would and several ministers including Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries insisting there is no shortage.

A spokesman for Boris Johnson said this morning that "if the public anxiety over this is reduced, people move back to their normal patterns of buying fuel then that should be the immediate lever to reduce the pressure”.

The government has already taken drastic steps in an attempt to abate the crisis.

Last week it announced it would make 5,000 visas available for foreign lorry drivers after multiple trade groups had urged ministers to make it easier for British companies to recruit from Europe.

The move was a spectacular U-turn, with the government having spent weeks refusing to relax immigration rules in response to ongoing shortages of lorry drivers and other workers.

Industry groups were this morning still waiting for details from the government about how the scheme will work in practice. Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng last night agreed to relax competition rules so fuel suppliers and retailers can share data on petrol supplies with one another and potentially redistrubute it. 

Fuel is the latest victim of labour shortages, with a dearth of HGV drivers in the UK leading to household names like McDonald's, Greggs and Ikea all reporting delays to deliveries, and social media awash with pictures of empty supermarket shelves. 

Industry leaders have expressed doubt about the impact deploying the army would have, making the point that low numbers of soldiers are actually qualified to drive tankers.

They are hopeful that signs of panic buying subsiding will emerge in the next 24 hours and lead ministers to decide against escalating their response.

Downing Street told reporters the government is “not currently bringing in the military to to drive tankers”, but soldiers are currently helping with testing to ease pressures in the industry.

The Prime Minister’s official spokesperson said: “There was a ministerial meeting yesterday to discuss the situation and agree next steps, there are official-led meetings throughout the day, and the Chancellor of Duchy of Lancaster will lead a ministerial meeting again this afternoon.

“And obviously we're continuing to monitor the situation and hold daily meetings, if the situation requires you've seen significant steps we've taken over the weekend.”

He added: “But I will take the opportunity to emphasise as George Eustice did that we have ample fuel stocks in this country, the public can continue to be reassured there are no shortages.

“And we're working closely with industry as I say to take to take action on where there is pressure on on petrol stations.

“But our message to the public will continue to be to only fill their tanks when they need to in order to to avoid the queues forming that we're seeing in some parts of the country.”

The spokesman said if the public “returned to the routine behaviours of filling up fuel” this will “significantly contribute” to ending the current challenges.

Downing Street also rejected calls from the Mayor of London Sadiq Khan to prioritise hospital staff and other key workers for the remaining fuel in the capital, as has happened during previous crises.

The PM’s spokesman said: ”In the immediate term I think that the approach which will have the most significant impact to allow everyone to access fuel would be for people to move to more to their routine behaviours when it comes to filling up their cars.

“That, alongside the measures we've announced over the weekend, should mitigate the current challenges we're seeing. So that's that's the approach we're taking.”

But Christina McAnea, general secretary of the Unison union, said the government “has to take control” and use emergency powers to “designate fuel stations for the sole use of key workers”.

“It's no good ministers wasting time on a pointless blame game or pretending there's no problem,” she added.

"Essential staff must be able to get to their jobs so they can continue to provide the services so many rely upon."

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