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Sensemaker: Pump panic

Sensemaker: Pump panic

What just happened

Long stories short

  • Russia threatened to block YouTube after two channels managed by RT, the country’s state-owned television network, were deleted for publishing Covid misinformation. 
  • The climate charity Possible said gas boilers in UK homes emit twice as much CO2 and eight times as much NO2 as all power stations in the country.
  • Sheriff Tiraspol, a football team from the tiny breakaway state of Transnistria on the Moldovan-Ukrainian border, beat 13-time European champions Real Madrid in the biggest upset in Champions League history.

Pump panic

In a petrol station in southeast London yesterday lunchtime, a driver in a blue Citroen made the mistake of jumping the queue. Another motorist, who had reportedly been waiting to refuel since 8am, appeared to pull a knife and threaten to stab him. Such is the sharp end of tensions across UK petrol stations short of fuel and patience.

The situation. At the end of last week, BP said it would have to close some of its petrol stations because it didn’t have fuel at its forecourts. On Friday, the Conservative MP James Cleverly calmed nerves by tweeting that there was no shortage (with three exclamation points). Over the weekend, Brits queued and filled up their cars across the country afraid that petrol would run out. In many places, the act of doing so caused petrol to run out. Some people took to Facebook Marketplace to flog their newly precious commodity at extortionate prices.

What caused the crisis? An acute shortage of HGV drivers, and a much smaller shortfall in specialist tanker drivers. The Road Haulage Association estimates that Britain has a shortage of more than 100,000 HGV drivers, part of a long-term problem. Historically low wages and lonely, punishing hours make the profession unappealing.

Is it also about Brexit? Yes. Since the UK voted to leave the EU, between 15,000 and 20,000 foreign drivers have taken their work elsewhere. That’s the Brexit element, and it’s pivotal. But there’s a Covid element, too. The Road Haulage Association says 40,000 HGV tests were cancelled over the pandemic. Critics might say one element was more foreseeable than the other – and even though there are driver shortages in parts of the continent, there have been no reports of knives pulled at petrol stations. 

How has the government responded? On Monday the government suspended competition law to allow companies to share information about fuel supply and plug gaps. It put troops on standby and offered 5,000 short-term work visas for foreign drivers to ease the shortage between October and Christmas Eve – which no one needs to point out wouldn’t be necessary had the UK maintained freedom of movement with the EU.

Is it getting better? In the short term, yes, so far. The Petrol Retailers Association said on Sunday that two-thirds of the stations it represents – 5,500 of the UK’s 8,000 – had run out of fuel. By Tuesday that number had fallen to 37 per cent. The medium term picture is less positive. The post-Brexit paperwork involved in getting across the Channel is a headache, and drivers might see it as a thankless task. Or, as an official from a union that represents drivers across the bloc put it to the BBC: “The EU workers we speak to will not go to the UK for a short-term visa to help the UK out of the shit they created themselves.” The government is banking on the wages being too good to turn down, with some firms now paying £50,000 a year. 

What’s the upshot? Covid played a part in the crisis and panic buying has exacerbated it. But the government’s need to address post-Brexit skill shortages was foreseeable as far back as 2016 – and it’s unlikely this crisis would have happened without Brexit. Even if the government persuades 5,000 foreign drivers to work here over winter, it’s a small fraction of 100,000 needed in the long-term. 

Who will people blame? Not necessarily the government. Last winter, as the UK faced its deadly second wave, over half of people polled by YouGov thought the public was most responsible for the rise in Covid cases. Only 31 per cent blamed the Conservatives. Brits have a knack for pointing fingers at each other – or, in this case, the person right in front of them in the petrol station queue.

Belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries

Japan’s new PM
Fumio Kishida, an establishment statesman from a family of political figures, is on course to replace Yoshihide Suga as Japan’s next prime minister after winning his party’s election. Kishida is a baseball lover, failed lawyer and former banker, perhaps best known for bringing Obama to Hiroshima in 2016 in the first visit by a serving US president since the World War Two attack. Earlier this month Suga stepped down as prime minister after only a year in office, citing a desire to focus on Covid measures. Kishida will have a lot to deal with, not least balancing relations with the US (a vital security partner) and China (Japan’s largest trading partner). But first he’ll have to win a general election due by the end of November. Kishida will go into that with a large majority, but he is a bland politician who’s not enormously popular. One to keep an eye on.

New things technology, science, engineering

Moon rocks
Given humans haven’t set foot on the lunar surface since 1972, you’d think we’d be more careful with the material that comes back to Earth. But an estimated 171 of the 379 “goodwill” moon rocks gifted to states, provinces and foreign nations by US presidents in the early 1970s are missing. That number is down one thanks to a Florida man who found Louisiana’s lost moon rock in a box of plaques that he used to make grips for his guns. The man believes he bought the lunar heirloom, fixed to a wooden display, in a car boot sale. Interested in the wood, not the rock, the man didn’t take a closer look at his purchase for years. But not everyone is satisfied with just waiting for lost bits of moon to turn up. Joseph Gutheinz, an attorney and law lecturer, hunts for missing lunar samples with students in the criminal justice class he teaches at the University of Phoenix. At last count the former Nasa special agent had tracked down one moon rock in an undercover sting operation, while his students had found a further 78.

The 100-year life health, education, living, public poliCY

Jab to work
Thousands of healthcare employees across the state of New York got jabbed against Covid to meet a deadline that would have prevented them working had they remained unvaccinated. By Monday evening, 92 per cent of nursing home workers had been vaccinated, a significant rise on the 84 per cent jabbed five days earlier and well above the statewide vaccination rate (83.7 per cent). One hospital in the Bronx saw the proportion of unvaccinated employees fall from 20 per cent to 6 per cent in the days leading up to the deadline. Nationwide a remarkable 97 per cent of United Airlines workers are now vaccinated after a company mandate. The UK government is currently looking into making Covid jabs mandatory for all frontline NHS staff, tens of thousands of whom are still unvaccinated. With a recruitment crisis in care homes, it’s a strategy that needs a lot of thought — but evidence from the US suggests it might be worth trying. 

Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics

China’s energy crisis
While petrol stations run dry in the UK, China is trying to keep the lights on. More than half the 31 provinces in mainland China have been rationing power. In some parts of the country, traffic lights have been switched off and elevator services suspended. Four reasons this is happening: 1. Beijing has imposed end-of-year emission targets that provinces are rushing to meet. 2. China has faced supply issues since implementing a ban on coal imports from Australia last autumn. 3. As the world reopens, there’s been increased demand for products made in Chinese factories, requiring more electricity. 4. Regulation forces Chinese producers to respond to higher costs by rationing output instead of passing those costs onto users. Global coal prices have hit record highs as China cranks up the coal-fired plants that generate 60 per cent of its electricity. Apple and Tesla suppliers have suspended production. When China jumps…

Wealth investment, fairness, prosperity

Toymaker’s delight
Lego has had an extraordinarily good pandemic: net profits in the first half of 2021 grew by 140 per cent year on year. But this isn’t just a story of families trying to occupy locked-down kids (Lego’s net profits are 10 times those of its main rival Hasbro, which also monetises children’s attention). Lego can also credit its success to bravery and innovation. It opened 134 new stores last year against the tide of the pandemic, a choice that paid off when lockdowns were lifted. It also widened its appeal to bored adults with new expert sets including a model of the Colosseum. The future is bright, too, as Lego should soon be able to draw on the untapped market of parents worried about plastics. In June it announced it could make its bricks from recycled drinks bottles and is expecting the new blocks to go on sale in the next 18 months or so. All the more reason to bask in the joy of Lego, as Tortoise did back in March.

Thanks for reading, and do share this around.

Xavier Greenwood

Produced by Phoebe Davis and edited by Giles Whittell. 

Photographs Getty Images, Olivia Zhang/AP/Shutterstock