UK suspends competition law to tackle petrol shortages driven by mass panic buying

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The Downstream Oil Protocol will make it easier for suppliers to share information and prioritise fuel delivery of areas most in need

The UK is temporarily suspending competition laws in a bid to allow the fuel industry to target petrol stations most in need of supplies, following panic-buying from motorists.

Officials have said the move would make it easier for companies to share information so it can prioritise parts of the country where fuel supplies are running low.

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It comes after motorists have been queuing at petrol stations over the weekend amid fears of fuel shortages.

At a glance: 5 key points

  • Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng met with oil companies and retailers on Sunday (26 September) to address the continued queuing for the pumps, with thousands of petrol stations running dry.
  • The triggering of the Downstream Oil Protocol comes as the Petrol Retailers Association (PRA) warned that two-thirds of its 5,500 independent outlets are out of fuel, with the rest “partly dry and running out soon”.
  • Ministers are now considering deploying the Army to deliver fuel, with Boris Johnson expected to examine the option on Monday (27 September).
  • The EG Group, which runs around 400 petrol stations across the UK under the BP, Esso and Texaco brands, has imposed a fuel limit of £30 per customer to ensure everyone has a “fair chance to refuel” amid the mass panic-buying.
  • BP has expressed concerns that the HGV driver shortage could impact its ability to keep up with fuel deliveries.

What’s been said

Announcing the measure to exempt the oil industry from the Competition Act 1998, Mr Kwarteng said the government had "long-standing" contingency plans in place to maintain fuel supplies.

He said: “We have long-standing contingency plans in place to work with industry so that fuel supplies can be maintained and deliveries can still be made in the event of a serious disruption.

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“While there has always been and continues to be plenty of fuel at refineries and terminals, we are aware that there have been some issues with supply chains.

“This is why we will enact the Downstream Oil Protocol to ensure industry can share vital information and work together more effectively to ensure disruption is minimised.”

In a separate joint statement from Shell, ExxonMobile and Greenergy, the industry reiterated that the pressures on supply were being caused by “temporary spikes in customer demand, not a national shortage of fuel”.

PRA chairman Brian Madderson told the BBC that the shortages were due to “panic buying, pure and simple”, with priority by oil companies being afforded to keeping motorway service station pumps topped up.

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Temporary visa scheme for foreign drivers

The possible deployment of the army to deliver fuel to petrol stations comes less than 24 hours after the government announced a temporary visa scheme for foreign drivers.

Under the scheme, a total of 5,000 foreign HGV drivers and 5,500 poultry workers will be allowed into the UK on three-month contracts up to 24 December to help keep supermarket shelves stocked and tackle fuel delivery difficulties in the run up to Christmas.

However, retailers have warned that relaxing immigration rules to fix supply chain issues was “too little, too late” to keep shop shelves fully stocked over the festive season.

Asked what shop shelves might look like by late December, British Retail Consortium director Andrew Opie told the BBC: “I think we’re going to see less choice, less availability, possibly shorter shelf life as well, which is really disappointing because this could have been averted.

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“I think it’s inevitable now, just through the shortage of drivers, that we won’t be able to get all the products onto the shelves that we would have liked to.”

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said the visas were “only one element” of the state intervention, as he admitted efforts to rebuild the domestic freight workforce could take years.

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