The Prime Minister was warned he might have to address the nation to stop panic buying which has led to forecourts running dry.
Mike Grannatt, one of the key civil servants who dealt with the previous fuel crisis which crippled Britain in 2000, suggested that the ongoing run on the pumps could last for weeks unless Mr Johnson stepped in.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “What happened in the end in 2000 was the Prime Minister got a grip on this stuff at the time, stood shoulder-to-shoulder literally with the fuel operators and gave a press conference and explained to people that unless we all slowed down the system would never really get back into balance.”
However, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps on Tuesday morning claimed there were “tentative signs of stabilisation” in forecourt supplies. The peak demand of Friday and Saturday also appears to be declining, according to a Whitehall source, given that so many people have already filled up their tanks.
The source added: “The sooner people return to normal buying habits, the sooner the supply chain will return to normal.”
But there were still major concerns as:
- School buses across London and the South-East were cancelled for the first time on Tuesday with warnings that the situation will get much worse tomorrow if operators cannot get hold of fuel. Buckinghamshire operator Vale Travel said it could not run its service to Sir Thomas Fremantle School in Winslow because it had run out of diesel. A spokesman said: “We want to get the kids to their school, they have a right to their education, but there’s no light at the end of the tunnel.”
- A leading doctor warned that the Government needed to act today to ensure health and care workers can carry out home visits to patients. Dr David Wrigley, deputy chair of the British Medical Association, told Sky News: “We can’t be waiting in queues for two or three houses for diesel or petrol when we have patients to see. We need urgent action today from the Government.”
- Brian Madderson, chairman of the Petrol Retailers Association, told the Today programme that “disappointingly” people continue to “panic buy” fuel. He said: “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. Everyone flocks there and… within a few hours it is out again.”
- Ministers believe the worst of the shortages may be over within days. The Government is seeking to strike a balance with its messaging, including on whether Mr Johnson should intervene.
- Oil prices have risen by 55 per cent so far this year and prices are currently at their highest level since 2018. Forward contracts for barrels of Brent oil were up 1.2 per cent today, changing hands at $80.48 (£58.94). The reopening of economies around the world has led to a spike in demand for fuel.
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “Schools and colleges are operating under a great deal of pressure at the moment because of the situation with Covid infections. The last thing they need is the added pressure of fuel shortages with the potential for this to mean that staff, pupils and suppliers are unable to get to school.”
Mr Grannatt, former head of the Civil Contingencies Secretariat in the Cabinet Office, which was set up after the 2000 petrol crisis, doubted whether bringing in 150 military drivers would have any major impact on the shortages.
Former business secretary Andrea Leadsom rejected criticism of the Government’s handling of the current crisis, claiming there was no shortage of tanker drivers. Asked whether ministers telling motorists not to panic buy had made the crisis worse, she told LBC Radio: “You cannot lay this on Government ministers, who have been totally measured.”
But shadow transport secretary Jim McMahon said: “It’s staggering that the Conservatives are still refusing to acknowledge there is a crisis of their own making and blaming everyone else for it.”