UK fuel stations will take weeks to return to normal

More than a quarter of Britain's service stations have no fuel, and another 20 per cent have only one grade in stock. PHOTO: AFP

LONDON (BLOOMBERG) - British motorists will have to wait weeks for fuel supply to return to normal, prolonging a shortage that has caused chaos across the country.

More than a quarter of the nation's service stations have no fuel, and another 20 per cent have only one grade in stock, according to the UK Petrol Retailers Association.

Around London, many service stations were still closed, while those that did have supplies were surrounded by long lines of cars waiting to fill up.

"It will take a number of weeks to get it back to more normal running levels" with no lines or shortages at service stations, Mr Gordon Balmer, executive director of the PRA, said in an interview with Bloomberg Radio on Friday (Oct 1).

The situation is improving "far too slowly" and his members "are not receiving enough deliveries", he said later in an emailed statement.

The government says its emergency measures - deploying a fleet of reserve tankers and putting the army on standby to drive trucks - have eased the crisis.

But there was little sign that drivers were heeding ministers' exhortations to slow their purchases, meaning fuel deliveries were barely able to keep up with demand.

"Consumer behaviour, allied with a perception of a shortage of fuel, is driving different levels of demand," Crime and Policing Minister Kit Malthouse told Sky News. "If we can return to a normal pattern of consumption, we can return to a normal pattern of supply."

The scenes on the streets of London on Friday morning were far from normal. From Woodford New Road in the north of the city to Catford in the south, a significant number of service stations displayed signs saying they had no fuel.

The situation isn't getting much better, said Mr Steve McNamara, general secretary of the London Taxi Drivers' Association.

"The vast majority of sites in London still have no fuel," he said in an interview. Where there is supply "we're getting more reports of longer queues" and as many as a quarter of his members say they are unable to work.

Where supplies of gasoline and diesel were available, there was ample evidence of "unprecedented demand".

From Kilburn in north-west London to the Old Kent Road, long lines of vehicles waited to fill their tanks, snarling traffic, blaring their horns and occasionally getting into arguments. Frustrated drivers spoke of many wasted hours searching for fuel and disruption to their lives and businesses.

At an Exxon Mobil station in north London, a motorist named Kevin said he had finally found fuel after having been on the hunt since Monday.

Running on empty for most of the week, the Ecuadorian national who declined to give his last name said he and his colleagues had to cancel jobs in his business collecting discarded furniture.

In south-east London on Thursday, a van driver who asked not to be named said he had visited 12 empty stations before finding a Royal Dutch Shell forecourt that had fuel. He had been waiting at least an hour for his turn to refill.

Driver shortage

The government's 80-strong reserve tanker fleet is helping to resolve the fuel shortages, despite a lack of drivers being at the root of the crisis, said a person familiar with the matter.

Haulage companies have recalled drivers from leave and are at surge capacity, meaning some operators now have more drivers than tankers, the person said.

Hoyer Petrolog UK, whose trucks deliver fuel for BP, said on Friday that training of military personnel to drive their vehicles is ongoing, without giving further details. Beyond those short-term measures, there is still a widespread shortage of qualified drivers.

"This has been an issue across the whole of industry," said the PRA's Mr Balmer. "There needs to be an improvement in pay and conditions for lorry drivers. They need to attract more people into the industry."

There are currently some 40,000 applications for heavy goods vehicle licenses stuck in processing at the UK Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency, Mr Balmer said.

"If that could be unblocked, there are some drivers that were previously off sick who can return to work and start to do deliveries," he said.

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