Petrol station queues are likely to continue in the coming days but fuel levels on forecourts are beginning to stabilise, the transport secretary has said.
Grant Shapps said that the government was seeing “very tentative signs of stabilisation” in the amount of fuel at filling stations, which will lead to fewer forecourt closures.
However, he also said that queues were likely to continue as demand remained high. He urged people to “play their part” and warned against resorting to filling up water bottles with fuel, which he described as “dangerous and extremely unhelpful”.
According to internal government figures average fuel levels for the past two days have been at 20 per cent, compared with a normal level of 43 per cent but there are understood to be signs that supplies are increasing slightly.
Shapps told Sky News: “Primarily as we all return to our normal buying habits — and we are starting to see so much petrol transferred to car tanks in the last few days there’s nowhere else for that petrol to go — we’re starting to see very tentative signs of stabilisation of the amount of fuel under the forecourt although that won’t reflect in queues, but will start to reflect in coming days in fewer petrol stations being closed.”
He criticised people who had been seen filling up water bottles at filling stations. “As the industry said yesterday the sooner we can all return to our normal buying habits, the sooner the situation will return to normal,” he said. “We all need to play our part and certainly don’t do things like bring water bottles to petrol stations. It’s dangerous and extremely unhelpful.”
Boris Johnson was under pressure yesterday to publicly call for calm amid warning that shortages could last for weeks unless consumers change their behaviour.
The prime minister put the armed forces on formal notice to prepare 150 military personnel to drive tankers. Up to 80 will be ready for deployment by the end of this week.
The government was also under increasing pressure to give key workers priority at the pumps, with the British Medical Association warning there was a “real risk” that NHS staff would be unable to do their jobs.
However, Mike Granatt, a former government official who set up the civil contingencies secretariat and worked on the petrol crisis of 2000, warned that only a change in consumer behaviour could restore reliable supplies.
He said that deploying the army would not have a significant effect, while attempting to prioritise some groups of workers was fraught with difficulties.
“When we started to prioritise people [in 2000] we ended up prioritising about a third of the economy and it didn’t work even then,” he told the BBC. “Hospitals found themselves short of staff not because their staff did not have priority but because school teachers hadn’t.”
He added that the crisis only ended after Tony Blair “explained to people that unless they slowed down [buying petrol] the system would never really get back into balance”.
He added: “It’s called leadership. Someone needs to stand up and say this to people rather than hide away.”
He said that even if behaviour returned to normal, it was likely to take three weeks to fully restore supplies.
Brian Madderson, chairman of the Petrol Retailers Association, blamed social media for fuelling the panic buying.
“As soon as a tanker arrives at a filling station, people on social media are advising that a tanker has arrived and then it is like bees to a honey pot,” he said.
“Everyone flocks there and . . . within a few hours it is out again.
“It is panic buying when you go to fill up your car to the entirety of its tank capacity which you wouldn’t normally do. You would fill up, say, half. The average fill across the UK is about £25-worth. We have seen people filling up to £100-worth where they can.”
Ministers have privately suggested that the fuel crisis would recede in the next few days once those who are panic buying have filled their vehicles, meaning that the military will not be required.
However, motorists continued to ignore calls for restraint, with government figures showing that average stock levels at petrol stations were below 20 per cent for the second day running.
Unison called on ministers to use emergency powers to designate some petrol stations for the sole use of key workers. Teachers have also been unable to get to work because of petrol station closures.
Local authorities in Surrey said that they were considering declaring a major incident and prioritising their stocks of fuel for key workers.
A government source argued that such an approach was unnecessary because there was no problem with supply. Ministers have previously said that the crisis is “manufactured” and caused by panic buying.
The chairman of the Commons transport committee today confirmed that the government was considering giving key workers priority.
Huw Merriman, a Conservative MP, told Today on Radio 4, “I think that’s being held in reserve” in case existing measures announced by the government including temporary visas for 5,000 fuel tanker and food delivery drivers did not work.
On the likelihood of the armed forces driving tankers, he said: “I hope not, but I think it does add to confidence to consumers. It will take a few days for them to be trained up.”
Dr Chaand Nagpaul, chairman of council at the British Medical Association, said that emergency and essential workers relied on fuel to travel to work and for the work itself — getting to hospitals, practices and other healthcare settings, or for ambulances to reach people in urgent need of care.
He said: “Everyone will have their own reasons for needing to fill up, but as pumps run dry there is a real risk that NHS staff won’t be able to do their jobs and provide vital services and care to people who urgently need it. Healthcare and essential workers must therefore be given priority access to fuel so they can continue their crucial work and guarantee care to patients.”
He said that government plans to end the shortage of lorry drivers would not solve the problems immediately and key workers must have priority access “so they can continue their crucial work and guarantee care to patients”.
The Royal College of Nursing has said that healthcare services “cannot afford to lose any more staff because they’re unable to travel”. Patricia Marquis, the college’s director for England, said: “We know some nursing staff are warning their employers they may not be able to attend to ensure shifts can be safely staffed.”
Among those who struggled to make it to work was Matt Fowler, a cancer nurse, who said he was unable to get fuel and he had to get two trains and a taxi and was “£45 lighter”.
Other key workers and patients said that services had been disrupted. A hospital consultant in Bedfordshire told the EveryDoctor campaign group, which represents 1,700 doctors: “We had an emergency discussion this morning. Two consultants in our department are out and can’t get to work. Two others on reserve. All four petrol stations within four miles of our hospital are closed with no fuel.”
A mother posted on Facebook that her daughter’s critical appointment was cancelled because her London doctor “has been unable to get fuel for his car and cannot get into work”.
A teacher from Borehamwood, Hertfordshire, said: “I was driving around last night and early this morning, had to send an email in to work to let them know I couldn’t get in, and have now received a rather rude email in return.”
Some petrol stations have already taken to serving only key workers, including a Sainsbury’s in Sevenoaks, Kent, that demanded ID and put up a sign on the forecourt stating it was for “emergency services fuel only”.
The Petrol Retailers Association, which represents thousands of independent petrol stations, said yesterday that between 65 per cent and 90 per cent of its members reported having run dry.
Pictures from the archive: the 1953 petrol strike
Johnson intervened just hours after George Eustice, the environment secretary, said that there were no plans to deploy the armed forces to drive petrol tankers. Some ministers were concerned that telling the army to prepare for deployment would exacerbate the crisis.
“In the end it was a no-brainer,” a government source said. “We believe that the crisis will recede in the next few days but there are no guarantees. If we got to next week and panic buying was still an issue people would be asking why the prime minister had failed to put the army on standby when he could. We are doing everything we can.”
Soldiers will be put on a “state of readiness” for a deployment after Kwasi Kwarteng, the business secretary, made a formal request to Ben Wallace, the defence secretary.
The drivers will receive specialised training and be deployed in the next few days if the crisis has not abated. The government has already taken two other significant steps — easing competition laws so that fuel suppliers can communicate with one another and announcing that up to 5,000 foreign drivers will be given visas.
The fuel industry — including BP, Esso and Shell — issued a joint statement urging people to stop panic buying. It said that demand for petrol should return to normal levels “in the coming days”.
They said: “There is plenty of fuel at UK refineries and terminals, and as an industry we are working closely with the government to help ensure fuel is available to be delivered to stations across the country. As many cars are now holding more fuel than usual we expect that demand will return to its normal levels in the coming days, easing pressures on fuel station forecourts. We would encourage everyone to buy fuel as they usually would.”
Eben Upton, the founder of Britain’s bestselling computer, wrote a paper as a Cambridge student modelling “fuel panics” and believes the crisis will continue for a further one or two weeks.
Upton, who founded the Raspberry Pi computer, said the situation would be eased almost immediately with the introduction of a rule requiring motorists to prove they had less than half a tank before filling up.
He said social media was stoking the crisis. He told The Times: “I couldn’t have imagined that this was going to have happened again. Back then [in 2000] there were people blockading refineries, this one seems to have blown up from almost nothing, a handful of pumps, fewer than ten, pumps running dry.
“I don’t blame the media as many people have been, I think social media is much more responsible.”
His original paper in 2013 found that the best way to alleviate the pressure was to have a rule that people could only get petrol if their tank dipped to a certain level. “I think the rule should be that you can only get petrol when your tank is at most half full and you should only be able to put in a maximum of £30 worth,” he added.
“I think if that sort of rule was introduced in my local area it would make life a lot easier. It would require two police officers to be stationed at every petrol sation — so around 16,000 officers, which is entirely possible, for a few days.”