The headlines were filled with stories of catastrophe and crisis for days. BBC: UK petrol stations closing due to shortage of drivers for lorries

“We are running low” was the headline of The Sun’s front page. The Times also warned of a nightmare Christmas.

This, according to our constant insistence, was caused by a Brexit-induced shortage lorry driver. Rod McKenzie was a Radio 1 Newsbeat presenter and is now the Road Haulage Association’s director of policy.

His regular appearances on television and radio broadcasts made him a fixture, encouraging the government to loosen visa requirements for foreign HGV drivers. He also urged the British Government to open Britain’s borders more to migrant labor.

However, the “petrol crisis” of the late September and early October vanished almost as fast as it appeared.

For days, media stories were full of crisis and catastrophe, with headlines like 'UK petrol stations close due to lorry driver shortages'

Over the course of days media coverage was full on crisis and disaster, headlines such as “UK petrol stations closed due to shortages in lorry drivers”

Is Britain truly ‘running low’? Or is panic buying the culprit? Was it a scare-story motivated by politics?

Many social media users accused the BBC, among other things, of panic-mongering. They also claimed that it triggered a rush of drivers to petrol stations which in turn worsened the situation.

As with all controversial stories, it is vital to report the facts, and BBC News’s dedicated Reality Check service – which it uses to ‘clear up fake news and false stories to find the truth’ – did. However, it did not cover the petrol shortage story.

Then, first, are the official stats.

Figures from the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS), based on a count of petrol and diesel delivered to a sample of fuel stations around Britain, show there was no significant reduction in supplies in the weeks leading up to the ‘crisis’.

All this, we were constantly told, was due to a Brexit-induced shortage of lorry drivers. Eagerly stoking the fears was Rod McKenzie, a former presenter of Radio 1's Newsbeat and now director of policy at the Road Haulage Association

This, according to our constant insistence, was caused by a Brexit-induced shortage lorry driver. Rod McKenzie (a former news presenter on Radio 1’s Newsbeat, and director of policy for the Road Haulage Association) was eager to inflame the fear.

The average delivery to every station surveyed was 113 723 litres per week, ending on August 29. It was then 113,846, and 111,033 the following week.

According to this, the supply of fuel was roughly in line with demand. There was however a minor deficit for the week ending September 19th, when 112,995 was delivered and 116.975 were purchased.

The Petrol Retailers Association stated that one reason this spike occurred was because garages changed the type of unleaded fuel they sold.

They had to move away from E5 grades and into a new E10 standard. The slowdown caused by the supply disruptions as the garages tried to deal with this transition.

The imbalance between demand and supply was similar before.

For instance, in the week ending March 1, 2020 – 123,270 litres of fuel were delivered to garages in the BEIS count and 128,862 litres were sold. There wasn’t panic or shortage.

Crucially, for the period we are focusing on, official Department for Business figures show a huge jump in fuel sales in one day – Friday, September 24 – when 35,937 litres were bought by motorists from the forecourts included in the Government’s statistical count, nearly double the 19,056 litres sold the previous Friday.

What could possibly have triggered the sudden surge in demand on that particular day?

But the 'petrol crisis' of the last week of September and early days of October disappeared almost as suddenly as it had appeared

The ‘petrol crises’ that erupted in the final week of September, and the early days of Octubre disappeared as quickly as it appeared.

BP announced that it had problems delivering fuel at a ‘handfull’ of 1,200 of its petrol stations. Esso stated it was having trouble supplying a small number’ to the 200 Tesco forecourts. 

That was when McKenzie was given a platform on the airwaves to bemoan a shortage of tanker drivers – and to blame Brexit.

On September 23, he told Financial Times: “If Esso is your supply company and you typically make five delivery per week to Falkirk’s petrol station, or anywhere else, then you may be able to cut down on that to just two or three.” The Government must act immediately.

The’something’ he wanted was for the visa system to be eased to make it easier for more truck drivers from overseas to get work in this country.

The leaking minutes of a seven-day earlier meeting between Hannah Hofer (BP retail operations head) and Cabinet Office officials, further complicated matters.

Ms Hofer explained to them that the logistics problems of oil giant meant that forecourts had been reduced by a third from normal. Her explanation was that this problem existed for many weeks and that BP is able to deal with it without having its garages closed.

Not surprisingly, while the initial part of her statement was published and became headline news, her clarification was not.

McKenzie stated that there was a shortage at 100,000 people and blamed ‘government of inertia. [drivers]. When you think that everything we get in Britain comes on the back of a lorry – whether it’s fuel or food or clothes – at some point, if there are no drivers to drive those trucks, the trucks aren’t moving and we’re not getting our stuff.’

Given human nature, and the reluctance of motorists to get caught with empty tanks, it was understandable that we had a crisis.

Fuel industry immediately responded to ensure that supplies were maintained. The fuel industry responded immediately to maintain supplies.

A sharp increase in demand is not something that any industry can handle, so media headlines about ‘Panic Monday,’ ‘Running empty’ and “Disruption of pumps could last for months” are all too common.

The Mail published a sobering headline on Sunday, September 26, with a rare and unusual title. It read: ‘How Britain spent its Saturday queuing for petrol… even though there’s no shortage.’

The accompanying story relates how ministers accused McKenzie, accusing him of causing panic buying across the nation by selectively leaking remarks made by Ms Hofer by BP executives.

They claimed he was “weaponizing” her comments and were blaming post Brexit immigration curbs as the cause of the crisis.

At this stage, desperate drivers filled cans, bottles, buckets, and, sometimes, even a bag with plastic in order to survive.

As a result, some petrol retailers limited drivers to £30 of fuel. The road haulage sector continued to whine about the shortage of drivers throughout.

It may have been blaming Brexit for a shortfall of foreign drivers, but Mr McKenzie’s organisation had been complaining about a lorry driver shortage for years – even when the UK was in the EU and rules of free movement applied.

In reality, lorry companies have been losing their ability to rely on low-wage labour. Many young people don’t want to be a lorry driver because they are low paid and spend long hours away from their homes.

The average age of a trucker in Britain has risen inexorably – and many are reaching retirement age.

Brexit, therefore, was only one aspect of a larger and more complicated problem. However, it was being portrayed as the primary cause.

Road Haulage Association has attempted to distance themselves from certain of its claims. Paul Munnery is its spokesperson and stated that “some tanker drivers accepted jobs in other haulage sector where companies were offering significantly higher wages, but the number involved was quite small.”

The company has revised its driver shortage estimate from 100,000 to 85,000.

Moreover, hiring thousands of additional drivers was not the solution to September’s crisis. Eventually, the Government relented and did what the haulage industry demanded – offering more visas to drivers from the EU.

It was revealed that only 27 applicants had submitted their applications the week after.

No matter what the long-term challenges of haulage, September saw fuel suppliers continue to deliver to forecourts despite them being insolvent.

Professor of Consumer Psychology at the time stated that the majority of the problems were due to anxiety, fear, and panic.

Rod McKenzie is also responsible for a lot of the responsibility.

Rod McKenzie was the woman who complained to her boss that work-related stress had destroyed her career during his time at BBC. McKenzie was accused of creating a climate that fosters fear and paranoia.

McKenzie was dismissed after a one-year-long investigation. He then switched jobs to another department of the BBC.

After leaving the Corporation, he helped run a media consultancy before joining the road haulage lobby group five years ago – only to find himself accused of propagating ‘fake news’ and again creating a climate of fear.