With petrol stations in many regions of the country exhausting their supplies, the siren calls to 'call in the army' have inevitably begun. The British Armed Forces have stepped up to the plate to stave off multiple civil emergencies over the last two years, whether it be driving ambulances in Scotland, redistributing critically ill patients around Britain or delivering food to the clinically vulnerable, they've proved themselves to be a highly able and competent last line of defence.
The use of troops to drive fuel tankers through Operation Escalin , though, would be an unnecessary and off beam move. Based on my experience of working in the government's fuel team last winter there are two core reasons why alternative mechanisms should be used to get on top of the situation.
The first relates to the intention behind Operation Escalin itself. This contingency was designed for use during a significant fuel haulier strike. Significant lead-in time (something legally required before a strike) is necessary to train the army on how to not only drive a highly dangerous vehicle but also to earth forecourt refuelling nozzles without triggering a deadly explosion. Cutting corners on training that should take a fortnight could ultimately lead to a far bigger setback than the fuel panic.
The second is underpinned by the genesis of this situation. A long-term structural lack of HGV drivers and intensive competition between industries to retain and recruit them is what ultimately resulted in a limited number of forecourts running out of fuel. Industry and government met last week and could have readily resolved at least some of these broad problems through a relaxation of driver hours, increasing HGV apprenticeships and using military HGV testing examiners to rapidly get more licenced drivers on the road, but little progress has been made. The government should now redouble its focus on the structural problem.
As for seeing an end to long petrol station queues by the end of this week, it would be prudent to deploy basic, practical contingency measures – which can be done overnight. Ministers should establish both a national Maximum Purchase Scheme to limit the amount of fuel people can purchase per visit and a Designated Filling Station Scheme to give priority access to blue light emergency vehicles.
That would be far more effective at illustrating to the public that the government is on top of the situation than sending in squaddies.
Joe Armitage is the lead UK political analyst at Global Counsel and previously worked in the government’s fuel supply team.
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