Analysis: Bringing in the army may seem a simple solution, but forecourts are complex places

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THE main contingency measure, which seems to have been plucked out of the air, is the use of army drivers.

Such a move would be fraught with difficulty because we, the retailers, have not been involved in any of the discussions. The Department of Energy and Climate Change has not engaged with the industry at all over this and frankly, we’re all pretty badly prepared.

Although the situation has echoes of the fuel blockades we saw in 2000, since then we’ve lost about 6,000 forecourts. That has led to a massive reduction in the amount of available fuel stock we have on the ground.

The recent increases in taxation through fuel duty and the increasing price of crude oil has forced wholesale prices up. Most of our retailers are running their businesses on as low a stock as possible because it is more cost-effective. That means supplies are lower and will be quicker to run out. We would have preferred to have been consulted by the government before the event, rather than it pull the rabbit out of the hat about the army being brought in. There are a number of practical difficulties associated with troops acting as tanker drivers, not least the idiosyncratic nature of many forecourts.

There are problems such as where the fuel lines are and how easy they are to access. Then there is the issue of how the tanker gets on to the forecourt and how the driver fills up the tank. We hear that the army be may unwilling to work at night. That will cause further problems, as many forecourts can only really be supplied later.

What happens, for example, if an inexperienced tanker driver and drops petrol down the diesel tank or vice-versa and you get contamination? They will need to be trained, not just on filling up the tankers, but the complexities at the retail end as well.

In terms of how long supplies will last if a strike goes ahead, it really depends on the extent of panic buying. If the public starts to panic buy, then you are talking days before the supplies start to run out. Part of the job will be getting the message out to people to take it easy, but with Easter coming up, there’s usually a big spike because people want to fill up and get away.

Potentially, we could see a repeat of the disruption we saw in 2000. It’s a bad situation for motorists, businesses, householders and the economy at large. I don’t know why they feel the need to take this strike action and we can see from the ballot that it has not been universally approved by the drivers. It’s early days, but it’s not looking good.

• Brian Madderson is chairman of the trade body RMI Petrol, which represents garage forecourts.