Plans for the Army to help ease mounting fuel crisis

·5 min read
Panic buying gripped petrol forecourts across Britain over the weekend, such as at this BP petrol station in Bracknell, Berkshire - Steve Parsons/PA Wire
Panic buying gripped petrol forecourts across Britain over the weekend, such as at this BP petrol station in Bracknell, Berkshire - Steve Parsons/PA Wire

Boris Johnson will be asked to decide on Monday whether to sign off on plans to draft in the Army to help tackle Britain’s mounting fuel crisis.

On Sunday, ministers discussed proposals to trigger Operation Escalin – a plan which would see “several hundred” soldiers brought in to drive petrol tankers – and are due to formally present the plans to the Prime Minister on Monday.

It comes after they were shown government figures suggesting that petrol stations across most of England had average stock levels below 20 per cent, enough for just one to two days.

While there is no shortage of fuel in the country, there have been problems getting it to filling stations because of a lack of HGV drivers and panic buying.

The Telegraph understands that between 1,500 and 2,000 filling stations have run out of at least one type of fuel, with long queues seen at forecourts across the country over the weekend.

Panic buying grips the nation

Drivers queued up long into the night in petrol stations across Britain - Gareth Fuller/PA Wire
Drivers queued up long into the night in petrol stations across Britain - Gareth Fuller/PA Wire
The Telegraph understands that between 1,500 and 2,000 filling stations have run out of at least one type of fuel - Ray Tang/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
The Telegraph understands that between 1,500 and 2,000 filling stations have run out of at least one type of fuel - Ray Tang/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

On Saturday night, an ambulance was involved in a collision after trying to manoeuvre past a queue at a Shell garage in Bromley, south-east London, and other collisions and fights were reported across the country.

The Telegraph understands that the Prime Minister will hold a series of meetings today, during which he will be presented with the option to trigger Operation Escalin.

The plans are under “active consideration”, said a government source.

Should the operation go ahead, Mr Johnson is also likely to release the Government’s reserve fleet of petrol tankers, which are thought to comprise several dozen owned by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.

The measures are part of the national emergency plan for fuel, which was last updated by the Government in January 2020.

Relaxing competition rules

Kwasi Kwarteng, the Business Secretary announced that the Government would temporarily suspend competition rules to allow rival petrol companies to share fuel supplies - PA Images/Alamy Stock Photo
Kwasi Kwarteng, the Business Secretary announced that the Government would temporarily suspend competition rules to allow rival petrol companies to share fuel supplies - PA Images/Alamy Stock Photo

Another of the proposals in the plan is the relaxation of competition laws. On Sunday night, Kwasi Kwarteng announced that the Government would temporarily suspend the rules, in a step known as the Downstream Oil Protocol. It enables fuel suppliers to talk to one another and share resources to prevent pumps running dry.

A similar relaxation was introduced for supermarkets in response to panic buying in stores at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, which enabled them to share staff and alternate the days they open.

The Business Secretary said: “We have long-standing contingency plans in place to work with industry, so that fuel supplies can be maintained and deliveries can still be made in the event of a serious disruption.

“While there has always been, and continues to be, plenty of fuel at refineries and terminals, we are aware that there have been some issues with supply chains. This is why we will enact the Downstream Oil Protocol to ensure industry can share vital information and work together more effectively to ensure disruption is minimised.”

While Downing Street has insisted no decisions have yet been taken on whether to use the military, if enacted, Operation Escalin would see “several hundred” soldiers mobilised to drive petrol tankers, with the first expected to take to the road 10 days after the go-ahead is given.

‘Too long to train military drivers’

However, industry leaders are said to be worried it will take too long to train the military drivers, who would not know how to unload the fuel from the tankers.

The Telegraph understands that the proposal was discussed at an unscheduled cross-Whitehall meeting at midday on Sunday, which was hastily arranged at midnight on the same day in response to the deteriorating situation.

It was chaired by Stephen Barclay, the Cabinet Office Minister, with Mr Kwarteng, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps, and Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, dialling in, and representatives from other departments also present.

When asked on Sunday on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show whether the Army would be called in, the Transport Secretary refused to rule out the option.

“We will do whatever is required,” said Mr Shapps. “The Army are going to, at the moment, make sure we are testing HGV drivers. That’s where the bottleneck is.”

Visa issues

In a bid to prevent consumer-induced shortages, Mr Johnson has already agreed to provide 5,000 temporary visas for European HGV drivers, with the Ministry of Defence also releasing military examiners to speed up the testing of new British drivers.

However, The Telegraph has also been told that the visas, which will be time-limited, are not due to come online for a fortnight, although the Home Office insisted on Sunday that eligible drivers could be fast-tracked before then.

The Government is hopeful that the surge in demand for fuel will begin to subside as soon as Friday as enough motorists will have filled up their tanks.

Ministers have appealed to motorists for calm and have repeatedly made clear that the crisis is not due to fuel shortages, but consumers flocking to petrol stations.

Mr Shapps reiterated that the current crisis was entirely “manufactured” by people panic buying.