How UK was fooled into the crippling fuel crisis: When ministers met road groups to fix a shortage of tanker drivers a leak sparked panic – so the Government is launching an official mole hunt, Mail reveals
- Ministers ordered inquiry into leak that sparked a single TV news report on fuel shortage
- Cabinet Office will investigate claims fuel crisis came from Brexit opponents
- Alleged they shared somewhat misleading account of events at secret meeting
- Probe will see every person who attended the meeting called to give evidence
You could blame the madness of crowds. But a more appropriate explanation for the petrol crisis that has gripped Britain this week is, perhaps, the butterfly effect.
This scientific concept holds that something insignificant can, in certain circumstances, spark an unfortunate series of events that will eventually lead to major disaster. So an insect flapping its wings in Brazil could, in theory, end up causing a deadly tornado in the American Midwest.
A very similar phenomenon has played out across Britain in recent days, after a single TV news report suggesting that a handful of BP outlets were running low on fuel went viral on social media. It led to UK motorists being unable to buy petrol or diesel, despite a perfectly normal amount of the stuff being in the country.
So what really triggered this bizarre mess? And, perhaps more importantly, who is to blame?
You could blame the madness of crowds. But a more appropriate explanation for the petrol crisis that has gripped Britain this week is, perhaps, the butterfly effect
That question is being mulled over at the highest level of government. I can reveal that ministers have ordered a full-scale inquiry into what they regard as the ‘reckless’ leak at the centre of the aforementioned TV news report.
Carried out by the Cabinet Office, it will investigate claims (which, it must be said, are vigorously disputed) that the fuel crisis came about because opponents of Brexit decided to share a partial and somewhat misleading account of events at a supposedly secret meeting between civil servants and industry. ‘The leak has caused tremendous anger in government, including at prime ministerial level,’ says a senior government source. ‘It led to serious disruption which damaged the British economy and endangered public health in a way that was reckless and entirely unjustified, so we need to find who was responsible and ensure something like this never happens again.’
The probe, to be carried out by civil servants, will see every person who attended the aforementioned meeting called to give evidence.
‘They will be formally asked whether they divulged information, who they might have spoken to or contacted, and whether they have any idea how this became public,’ adds the source. ‘It’s a sort of interrogation, in that there will be a couple of people cross-examining them, and their job will be to find out exactly why so many people have suffered this week.’
At the centre of the inquiry are suspicions that the leak was politically motivated and, by extension, that the crisis (which, in addition to inconveniencing millions of motorists, saw NHS operations cancelled and left ambulances unable to operate) was deliberately engineered to further a political agenda.
Pictured: A brawl breaking out at a fuel station as people flocked to garage’s to fill up their vehicles
Whatever it concludes, a good portion of the associated dispute will — like so much that is toxic about today’s public discourse — revolve around Brexit.
To understand why, we must wind the clock back to September 16, when civil servants hosted the meeting with several major employers who are struggling to recruit sufficient HGV drivers. Industry bodies have claimed that the UK is between 75,000 and 100,000 drivers short, while the Government puts the figure at around 35,000.
To blame are a multitude of factors, including a global shortage (Poland needs 120,000 more and Germany 60,000), Covid (which saw 40,000 HGV driving tests cancelled last year), and changes to tax laws that make it harder for drivers to be paid via service companies, causing some older employees to take early retirement.
Brexit is also to blame, though perhaps not as squarely as some have suggested. According to the Office for National Statistics, around 12,000 EU drivers have left the UK since 2016. That equates to roughly 4 per cent of the country’s total HGV workforce, where numbers stand at 275,000, down from 320,000 in the past five years.
Tesco, McDonald’s and Amazon were invited to send a representative to the September 16 Cabinet Office talks, which took place via Zoom, to discuss their concerns. Also on the call, which lasted 90 minutes, were senior executives from Unilever, BP and trucking giant Eddie Stobart, plus trade groups representing the trucking industry: Logistics UK and the Road Haulage Association (RHA).
It was held under the Chatham House Rule: a convention designed to allow participants to speak freely on the understanding that their remarks will be regarded as off the record and will under no circumstances be made public. Yet at some point in the ensuing six days, at least one participant decided blithely to ignore those rules by leaking a relatively detailed account of proceedings to ITV.
A very similar phenomenon has played out across Britain in recent days, after a single TV news report suggesting that a handful of BP outlets were running low on fuel went viral on social media. It led to UK motorists being unable to buy petrol or diesel, despite a perfectly normal amount of the stuff being in the country
On Wednesday last week, the television network carried a report claiming that Tesco’s representative at the meeting, Andrew Woolfenden, had revealed that the supermarket chain has a shortfall of 800 HGV drivers. He allegedly said this could lead to empty shelves and ‘panic-buying’.
Also quoted in the dispatch was Katherine Mercer of Amazon (predicting that the festive season will be ‘a real challenge’) and Beth Hart of McDonald’s, saying that shortages of some ingredients are impacting on menus.
The following night’s ITV report alleged that BP was preparing to ‘ration fuel deliveries as some petrol stations close over supply problems’. It focused on remarks made by the oil firm’s head of retail, Hanna Hofer, at the supposedly secret Zoom meeting.
It accurately claimed she had described the situation on forecourts as ‘bad, very bad’, saying that fuel stocks were at ‘two-thirds of normal’ and ‘declining rapidly’, and adding that BP was preparing to restrict deliveries ‘very soon’.
The ITV report failed to quote remarks by Ms Hofer later in the meeting clarifying the relatively minor nature of the shortages that BP was facing.
A source with knowledge of her full contribution says she stressed that the firm had been successfully ‘managing’ a shortage of roughly 40 drivers (equating to around 10 per cent of its workforce) for several months. She added that it was having a barely noticeable effect at the pumps, with just five of BP’s roughly 1,200 garages actually running out of fuel each day.
It’s unclear whether ITV’s reporter Joel Hills was aware of these particular caveats when he produced his dispatch. He does not appear to have been passed a full transcript or recording of the meeting, and it is of course entirely possible that his source failed to mention them.
But while he may not be remotely to blame — it is, after all, every journalist’s duty to obtain and report information that is clearly in the public interest — it remains an important fact that the figures did not feature in the version of events presented to viewers.
The audience was told that BP was experiencing ‘tens’ of ‘outages’. Some might have wrongly assumed that the thick end of 100 stations were running dry. All of which may go some way to explaining why the report gained traction — and began to panic motorists in the process.
Another significant factor in sending the BP report viral was the energetic contribution of prominent anti-Brexit campaigners. They began gleefully sharing ITV’s report within minutes of publication. Inevitably, and almost entirely wrongly, they sought to claim that BP’s driver shortage had been largely caused by Britain’s departure from the EU.
‘Brexit is now leading to fuel rationing,’ claimed Lord Adonis, the Labour peer, on Twitter.
One of the hundreds of people who shared tweets by Mr Hills promoting the report remarked: ‘Well done to everyone who voted Brexit, Muppets.’ And so on.
Pictured: A forecourt at a petrol station in Richmond is packed with cars as drivers flocked to refill their motors
On the night of September 23, as queues started to form on forecourts, Rod McKenzie, a spokesman for the RHA, appeared on Sky News and the BBC’s Newsnight to discuss the revelation.
‘As BP closes sites due to a lack of drivers, the Road Haulage Association’s Rod McKenzie says issues are down to Brexit, the pandemic and a historic shortage of drivers,’ claimed the BBC. McKenzie’s contribution raised eyebrows in government, where the RHA — which represents haulage firms rather than lorry drivers — is seen as being ideologically opposed to Brexit.
The association says it has been warning the Government for years that the long-running driver shortage risked causing a crisis, especially in the aftermath of Brexit.
Whoever is in the right in this row, the RHA was suspected of leaking details of the meeting to ITV in order to pressure the Government into allowing members to recruit from overseas.
‘We believed that it was them,’ says a government source. ‘Firstly, it’s about motive. No one else round that table stood to benefit from making that information public, aside from the RHA who want EU drivers back in force because they are addicted to cheap European labour and find it painful having to contemplate increasing wages. In fact, one of the things that makes it so reprehensible is that other participants in the meeting stood to be severely damaged by their remarks getting out.
‘Secondly, we know the RHA have form for leaking other meetings with government. They’ve done it before when they were the only ones in the room!
‘Grant Shapps [Transport Secretary] has had one-on-one briefings with them in the past where things that were said ended up being made public almost straight away, angering the Speaker of the House because it meant information appeared in the Press before it was shared at the despatch box. You don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to work out how that happened.’
Five more energy firms may go bust
By Francesca Washtell City Correspondent for the Daily Mail
Five more small energy suppliers may be on the brink as industry regulator Ofgem chases them for £7million in missing payments.
It came as the energy price cap was raised by £139 a year yesterday in a blow to millions of households, with the winter heating season beginning. The crisis in the energy market has seen 12 suppliers go bust so far this year, nine of them last month.
The payments Ofgem is seeking from the five firms are for the renewables obligation programme, and falling behind on these can be a sign that a company is in trouble. The scheme is designed to support green power projects and requires suppliers to demonstrate they have sourced enough of their electricity from renewable resources.
Ofgem said the firms had missed the initial deadline of September 1 and none had made any guarantees that they would make the necessary payments by the new cut-off date of October 31. If they do not pay, the regulator said it ‘could start the process of revoking their licences to supply energy’.
It added: ‘In all instances Ofgem will seek to secure the best outcomes for consumers and the wider energy market.’
Ampoweruk owes the most, according to Ofgem, with an outstanding bill of £3.6million. Goto Energy owes £2.5million, while Colorado Energy owes £883,000.
Business-only provider Whoop Energy owes £56,300 and Home Energy Trading £2,500.
I’m told that suspicions were heightened by the fact Duncan Buchanan, the RHA executive who was on the fateful Zoom call, made almost identical remarks during that discussion as the ‘lines’ that were briefed to ITV. Both he and Mr McKenzie, a former BBC journalist, have therefore found themselves thrown into the firing line.
Grant Shapps, in an interview with Sky News last weekend, made the allegation in person: ‘There was a meeting which took place about ten days ago, a private meeting in which one of the haulage associations decided to leak the details to media,’ he said.
In response to the claims, the RHA has issued a vigorous denial that McKenzie was responsible. Insiders there believe they are being scapegoated in order to shift public blame away from incompetent ministers and civil servants.
‘Firstly, Rod McKenzie was not in the meeting where the BP issue was discussed,’ the RHA says. ‘Secondly, he is not the source of the leak. The first he heard of the comments was when journalists rang him asking for comment after the ITV News story had been broadcast.
‘He was not, as the government source claimed, “aware of the comments” and certainly did not “weaponise” them in subsequent TV interviews. Indeed, he repeatedly stressed the need not to panic-buy and that there were adequate fuel stocks.
‘It is also completely untrue to say that the “RHA leaks every meeting we have with them”. The RHA believes this disgraceful attack on a member of its staff is an attempt to divert attention away from their recent handling of the driver shortage crisis.’
Buchanan has also denied responsibility for the leak.
‘We have a huge degree of confidence that the RHA is to blame,’ says a senior government source. ‘Because the investigation is for now a Cabinet Office thing rather than a full public inquiry, we can’t at this stage compel them to come and give evidence, and we also can’t get the suspects to hand over their phones. But we aren’t ruling that out, so we assume they will co-operate fully.’
Doubtless, they will. For a nation of motorists who bore the brunt of this week’s surreal and entirely unnecessary fuel crisis surely deserve a proper explanation.
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