Petrol disruption will fuel fears of new winter of discontent

The issue now – a shortage of drivers – is different to the 70s but ministers are wise to work on contingency plans

Last modified on Thu 23 Sep 2021 14.56 EDT

First it was stagflation. Then it was surging energy prices. Now the news that oil companies are rationing deliveries of petrol and diesel to garage forecourts has provided an ever louder echo of Britain in the 1970s.

By the standards of the past, the situation has not reached the crisis levels of 1973, when there was talk of motorists being forced to use petrol rationing coupons leftover from the second world war. Nor is the government facing a strike by tanker drivers, as was the case in early 1979 during the winter of discontent.

More recently, Tony Blair threatened to call in the army in the face of the autumn 2000 fuel protests that led to panic-buying and the country almost grinding to a halt. Things are not yet that bad, although the government will be alive to the risk that they soon could be.

In 1973 the problem was that oil-producing countries imposed an embargo that limited the supply of crude. In 1979, it was industrial action. This time, the refineries are well stocked with fuel, but petrol companies lack the drivers to deliver it.

The latest snapshot of business from the Office for National Statistics shows that the transportation and storage industry currently has only 80% of firms working – the lowest for any sector of the economy. Some companies have ceased trading during the pandemic, many more are temporarily closed because of a lack of staff.

Low pay is a key factor. Driving a HGV vehicle is a tough job that is rewarded relatively poorly. BP and the other oil companies are now struggling to retain staff at a time when the big supermarket chains are offering £1,000 sign-on bonuses to new drivers.

The government says it is making it easier for new drivers to get their HGV licences but this won’t help much in the short term. Ministers are under growing pressure to ease visa restrictions for EU drivers, but this is no magic bullet because it would take months for new workers to arrive.

Like Jim Callaghan in 1979, Downing Street says there is no crisis and has advised motorists to carry on as normal. Quietly, though, ministers will be working on contingency plans that would involve soldiers being drafted in to deliver fuel. It would not be a good look for Boris Johnson to be hosting November’s Cop26 climate change conference with the country at a standstill.

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