A number of residents have contacted me over the last week regarding the fuel shortages we have seen across the country. Like many others, I and my family haven’t been immune from this disruption and I understand the considerable inconvenience and pressure it has placed on those who rely on their car to get from A to B, whether that be for work, the school run or the weekly shop.
While it is true that, nationally, there are ample fuel stocks and no shortages at either the refineries or storage areas, with more fuel now being delivered than sold, I am very aware that the majority of our local garages remain short on fuel. I have raised this problem directly with the Prime Minister and have been reiterating to my colleagues in government that the reality on the ground in Bromley is still one of inadequate supply.
Throughout, this has been a problem of distribution rather than stock levels, with a shortage of around 350 drivers in the fuel industry. The Government has taken a number of steps to help ease the problem, including relaxing competition law to aid fuel re-supply, authorising temporary extensions to the specialist certifications drivers transporting fuel require, deploying a reserve fleet of fuel tankers, and providing military drivers to assist with the distribution effort. Ultimately, the fastest way back to normality is for all of us to refuel in line with our usual buying habits.
Lessons certainly need to be learnt from the last couple of weeks, including on our domestic resilience and the robustness of our just-in-time supply chains. As many people will know, I was opposed to Brexit and I think it is wrong to pretend this shortage of HGV drivers hasn’t be exacerbated in part by our withdrawal from the EU. Equally, however, this problem isn’t unique to Britain and many other countries, both within Europe and further afield, are experiencing some level of disruption to their supply chains as a result of COVID-19, with drivers off sick and delays in getting newly trained drivers tested and out onto the roads. This is affecting different parts of the economy, not just the delivery of fuel, and it is a problem that requires long-term solutions.
Again, a series of measures have been introduced to address these broader pressures in the road haulage sector. That includes maximising testing capacity and reducing the backlog of tests, with the DVSA already increasing the number of vocational tests available per week to 3,000 compared to 2,000 pre-COVID; supporting lorry driving through apprenticeships and introducing a new driver training pilot with Jobcentre Plus; and training up to 4,000 new HGV drivers through skills bootcamps and the adult education budget. Alongside this, changes are being made to the visa system to allow up to 5,000 HGV drivers to come to the UK in the run-up to Christmas. While that is welcome, I have urged ministers to be both pragmatic and realistic, including on the duration of the visas if we are to attract people with these skillsets to the UK.
Of course, I am as keen as everyone else to see the situation at our petrol stations return to normal as soon as possible, and although, from what I understand, the industry expects this will happen over the coming days, I will keep pressing ministers to do everything within their power to address this issue. I am also in the process of arranging a meeting with fuel suppliers at our local garages to discuss the pressures they are facing and better understand what they need from government to ensure this problem doesn’t happen again.