By Elizabeth Sitotombe

THOUSANDS of British petrol stations have run dry across major English cities after panic buying deepened a supply chain crisis triggered by a shortage of truck drivers.

Snaking queues of vehicles formed at many gas stations over the past few days.

Those that had some reserves were rationing to £30 for small cars and £40 for delivery vans.

Frustrated customers even came to blows after waiting hours for their turn to fill up.

In one shocking incident, caught on camera in south-east London, a man pulled a knife on another driver while shouting at him through his car window.

The man was then thrown onto the bonnet as the car moved forward, before he circled back to the driver’s side and kicked the vehicle, damaging its mirror.

Police had to be called in.

Still, the national supply chain shortage is not just affecting petrol.

In supermarkets across Britain, the number of shelves that are bare is growing each week, with more and more products becoming unavailable.

The fast food chicken chain, Nandos, has had to close some outlets and limited its menu at others because of an inability to source poultry, while it has become difficult to get a McDonald’s milkshake.

Popular imported beer brands are not available at pubs across the UK and the supply from local brewers might soon run dry.

It seems the UK has been brewing a storm whose impact could batter the world’s fifth-largest economy.

If not resolved sooner, the effect could be devastating, lasting many months if not years.

The Brexit factor

Brexit is being seen as a trigger for the crisis even though government is blaming it all on the COVID-19 pandemic.

Brexit, or the UK’s formal withdrawal from the EU, which took effect in January last year, means the new immigration rules are now in place and no longer allow workers from EU countries to live and work visa-free in the UK.

Hordes of foreign workers have had to return to their home countries due to visa requirements. 

Conservative estimates indicate at least one million people have abruptly left the workforce as a result, predominantly in the services sector, creating a labour shortage in critical industries like road transportation, processing and handling, distribution and production.

According to The Guardian, about 25 000 Heavy Goods Vehicle (HGV) drivers from the EU left the UK during 2020 and did not return.

Radu Dinescu, common secretary of the National Union of Road Transporters in Romania, stated Romanian drivers — who laboured within the UK in massive numbers earlier than Brexit — now “prefer EU stability.” 

“The UK seems to be experiencing a paradox — British citizens do not want to practise the job of truck driver, while at the same time they do not want other non-UK citizens to come to do this job,” Dinescu advised.

For UK’s Labour Party shadow chancellor, Rachel Reeves, Brexit is “…obviously a contributory factor” to the shortage of HGV drivers that is having a knock-on effect across the economy.

“To deny that, I think, flies in the face of reality,” Reeves told Sky News.

“When you cut off a supply of labour, which we did when we left the European Union, then you are of course contributing and adding to problems.”

Terming the present crisis a ‘manufactured situation’, UK Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said: “I have seen people point to Brexit as if it is the culprit here. In fact, they are wrong.”

Opposition Labour Party leader Keir Starmer slammed the Conservative government for failing to foresee the shortage of workers following Brexit.

“This is a complete lack of planning…Just one consequence (of Brexit) was there was going to be a shortage of HGV drivers. That was predictable.”

Deploy the military!

The shortage of HGV drivers has been estimated at more than 100 000.

British newspapers said that after mounting pressure, among other measures, the British government is said to be considering whether to call in soldiers to deliver fuel to petrol stations as pumps ran dry after days of panic buying.

In addition, Downing Street has already backed down over reluctance to import foreign labour to solve the HGV driver shortage by creating 5 000 three-month visas to bring in extra haulers to help prevent a Christmas without turkey or toys for many British families.

The UK’s Conservative government also announced that it will issue 5 500 three-month visas for poultry workers.

Furthermore, Downing Street has temporarily suspended competition laws to allow the fuel industry to target petrol stations most in need of fresh supplies.

But haulers, gas stations and retailers warned that there were no quick fixes to the shortage of truck drivers as transporting fuel demands additional training and licensing.

As a result, Reeves accused the UK’s Conservative government of failing to “…get a grip on the crisis” and “…we are now seeing that play out on garage forecourts and in our supermarkets.”

“The government, instead of denying the problem and blaming others, which is what Grant Shapps was doing at the weekend, need to get a grip and sort out these problems.

“Because frankly it is not fair and it is not right that ordinary working people are queuing for hours on end to get petrol to go about their day-to-day business.”

For the London Mayor Sadiq Khan, the crisis was inevitable.

“We knew for some time that this was going to happen,” Khan said.

“The government had taken their eye off the ball and it is ordinary people who are suffering.”

For months, supermarkets, processors and farmers have warned that a shortage of heavy goods vehicle (HGV) drivers was straining supply chains to breaking point — making it harder to get goods onto shelves.

Too little, too late!

Industry groups welcomed the new visa plan, although the British Retail Consortium said it was ‘too little, too late’.

Ruby McGregor-Smith, president of the Confederation of British Industry, said the announcement was “…the equivalent of throwing a thimble of water on a bonfire.”

Indeed, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is in a fix.

It looks like the British now have a glimpse of how life is like with shortages.

While theirs are due to lack of planning for life after Brexit, they must now have a fair idea of how evil it is to create these for others through imposition of illegal sanctions. 

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