‘Autumn of discontent’ as consumer costs spiral in UK amid drastic shortages

Warnings over drastic fuel and food shortages have sparked fears of an “autumn of discontent", as Scots were warned to brace for the highest rises in energy costs.

Westminster business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng said people living in the north of the UK would be hit hardest by energy hikes due to the colder weather as the government admitted it was planning for the “worst-case scenario” amid rising gas prices.

Meanwhile, Citizens Advice Scotland warned that Scots are set to face a “really tough winter”, hit by a combination of utility bill hikes, the end of furlough, a cut to Universal Credit and general economic uncertainty.

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The Bank of England said inflation was also set to top 4 per cent, driven by soaring energy bills, while oil giant BP warned of shortages on forecourts as the HGV driver shortage hit deliveries of fuel.

There have been shortages of some products due to a lack of carbon dioxide supply.

The crunch on consumer products and gas prises comes as life expectancy for Scots fell by the sharpest level in 40 years on the back of the crippling impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Myles Fitt , spokesman for Citizens Advice Scotland, said: “The next few weeks are going to see a combination of hits to peoples finances, which we fear could push significant numbers of household budgets into disarray such as being unable to pay bills, getting into debt or falling into poverty.

"Fuel bill hikes, the ending of furlough and the £20-a-week cut to Universal Credit are all going to happen together, against a background of general economic uncertainty as the country emerges from Covid-19.

“This is why the Citizens Advice network in Scotland has launched a campaign this week to remind everyone that our advisers are ready to help anyone who is in financial difficulty. Without help, we fear a lot of households are going to have a really tough winter.”

Gas prices have risen in recent weeks.

SNP Commons leader Pete Wishart described the coming months as an "autumn of discontent” as families face rocketing costs – and blasted Westminster leaders for taking autumn recess for the party conference season.

Mr Wishart said: “We will be taking a month off when the UK is facing an autumn of discontent, when hard-pressed families are facing one of the biggest assaults on their weekly incomes.

“As this House abandons its station to the conference halls and seaside resorts, there’s Universal Credit cuts, energy prices going through the roof, a CO2 crisis, driver shortages, farming chaos, fishing chaos, an export crisis, the ending of furlough and Brexit killing a nation.

“This nonsense of a conference recess has surely run its course and it must now come to an end.”

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BP said fuel deliveries would be reduced to ensure that supplies do not run out. The firm told the UK Government in a meeting last Thursday that its ability to transport fuel from refineries to its network of forecourts was faltering.

BP’s head of UK retail Hanna Hofer said it was important the government understood the “urgency of the situation”, which she described as “bad, very bad”.

It is unclear how soon deliveries could be restricted, but fuel will not be restocked for one-and-a-half days a week “very soon”. Motorways will be prioritised and restocked as normal.

With test centres shut and many HGV drivers from the EU returning home during the pandemic, it has created a shortage of qualified drivers.

The issue has already hit supermarkets, with shelves half full and grocers forced to increase salaries and introduce signing-on bonuses to fill gaps.

The problem has also spread to waste collection services, with some councils cancelling bin collections as drivers have taken more lucrative jobs elsewhere.

The supermarket shortages come on top of existing problems, with supply of some products due to a lack of carbon dioxide. However, the government is to pay to reopen a plant that makes the product, in a bid to stop widespread disruption to food and drink production.

Meanwhile, UK Government ministers have denied being complacent over 18-month-old warnings about risks to the UK’s energy supply after 1.5 million people were left without a provider.

A host of energy companies have gone to the wall in recent weeks after the sector was hit by rocketing global wholesale gas prices.

With 800,000 consumers losing their suppliers on Wednesday alone, two energy companies have since looked to make it more difficult for new customers to sign up for their services as they attempt to survive the current turbulence.

Bulb scrapped its popular refer-a-friend scheme as it tries to raise new cash, while rival Ovo Energy changed its website by removing an invite to “get an energy quote in under two minutes”.

Shadow business secretary Ed Miliband quoted a letter from energy regulator Ofgem warning of a “systemic risk to the energy supply as a whole”, which had been sent 18 months ago. Opposition leader Sir Keir Starmer tweeted the details show the government was “warned about a looming crisis and didn’t prepare”.

Speaking in the Commons, Mr Miliband accused ministers of being “complacent” about the shock that rising gas prices could wreak upon the market, as well as families and the cost of living. However, Mr Kwarteng said the Conservative administration had “not been complacent” as suppliers collapsed.

Minister Paul Scully told Sky News the government was planning for the “worst-case scenario” when gas prices stay high for a consistent period of time.

He said: "Clearly, as a government, we need to make sure we are planning for the worst-case scenario because we want to make sure we can protect consumers."

Pushed on what a worst-case scenario could entail, Mr Scully said: "That it goes on for longer than a short spike. I can't give you a figure now."

Orkney and Shetland MP Alistair Carmichael called for greater government reassurances to customers over the ongoing energy crisis.

He said: “First and foremost we need the government to give a sense of stability. People are understandably nervous about rising energy costs, particularly as the colder season starts to draw in.

"We know that energy firms are coming under pressure, but their customers should not lose out as a result of any company closures or volatility.

“Whatever the immediate causes, there is clearly a long-term issue with the regulation of the energy market – we need a rethink of the way the market works – and Ofgem’s remit to act – to anticipate and mitigate these sorts of events.”

New data from National Records of Scotland (NRS) shows life expectancy for the period 2018 to 2020 was down by more than 18 weeks for males, with Scotland’s drugs problem said to be a factor, alongside the pandemic. The fall was smaller for females – a reduction of 8.5 weeks.

Life expectancy for males in 2018-2020 was 76.8 years, down from 77.1 years in 2017-2019.

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