The government is coming under increasing pressure to give key workers priority at fuel stations, as the disruption from panic buying and a chronic shortage of fuel tanker drivers continues.
Organisations representing health workers have urged ministers to consider giving doctors, nurses and other key frontline staff access to fuel in order to get to work and reach patients in their care, amid reports that many are struggling to get to work.
Dr Chaand Nagpaul, chair of the British Medical Association council, said: “Emergency and essential workers rely on fuel both to travel to work and for their work itself – whether this is to get to hospitals, practices and other healthcare settings, or for ambulances to reach people in urgent need of care and GPs to visit very ill patients at home.
“Everyone will have their own reasons for needing to fill up, but as pumps run dry there is a real risk that NHS staff won’t be able to do their jobs, and provide vital services and care to people who urgently need it.”
Patricia Marquis, director for the Royal College of Nursing in England, said: “Nursing staff do valuable work, often travelling long distances to get to work or see their patients in the community.
“Health and care services, already struggling with widespread staffing shortages, cannot afford to lose any more staff because they’re unable to travel. We already know some nursing staff are warning their employers they may not be able to attend tomorrow to ensure shifts can be safely staffed.
“In light of these supply problems, health and care workers need to be a priority or patient care will be compromised.”
The government has revealed plans for a temporary visa scheme for HGV drivers and increased capacity for lorry driver tests. The armed forces will also prepare 150 military personnel to drive fuel tankers if needed.
However, Nagpaul said these plans will not provide immediate relief to health workers trying to get to work, which was why priority access was needed in the short term.
Some local authorities were reportedly considering giving key workers priority access to fuel pumps, while London mayor Sadiq Khan and public services union Unison said designated petrol stations should be reserved for essential workers.
“Essential staff must be able to get to their jobs so they can continue to provide the services so many rely upon”, said Unison’s general secretary Christina McAnea.
“Ambulance crews, nurses, care workers, teaching assistants, police staff and other key workers mustn’t be left stranded or forced to queue for hours simply to get to a pump.”
Liberal Democrat leader Ed Davey said: “The government must urgently intervene and give NHS and other key workers priority access to fuel, to keep essential services running while ministers finally get to grips with this crisis.”
Ambulance crews, nurses, care workers, teaching assistants, police staff and other key workers mustn’t be left stranded or forced to queue for hours simply to get to a pump” – Christina McAnea, Unison
The Petrol Retailers Association, which represents independent fuel stations, said 50% to 90% of pumps had run dry in some areas. However, refineries had a good level of stock.
“There is plenty of fuel at UK refineries and terminals, and as an industry we are working closely with the government to help ensure fuel is available to be delivered to stations across the country,” said a joint statement from the fuel industry.
Announcing the plan to utilise military tanker drivers if needed, business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng said: “The UK continues to have strong supplies of fuel, however we are aware of supply chain issues at fuel station forecourts and are taking steps to ease these as a matter of priority.
“If required, the deployment of military personnel will provide the supply chain with additional capacity as a temporary measure to help ease pressures caused by spikes in localised demand for fuel.”
Stephen Ravenscroft, head of employment law at Memery Crystal, said employers will have a duty to assist staff in getting to work if their job involves driving.
“An employer will have a greater responsibility to assist the employee in overcoming the problem, and may have to continue paying the employee as normal during any temporary period of shortage, even if they cannot perform their normal duties,” he said.
Short-term solutions for employees unable to get to work via public transport may include working from home or taking annual leave, said Kate Hudson, HR advice and consultancy director at Peninsula.
“At the end of the day, it is an employee’s responsibility to ensure they are able to get to their place of work. While employers can and should be understanding given the wider supply chain issues, for many, this is an avoidable situation,” she said
“In appropriate cases, short term layoff may be the best option. It is important that employers check their contracts to see whether staff are entitled to full pay or statutory guarantee pay in this instance.”