The possibility of a strike by tanker drivers has dominated the news in the UK this week, bringing back uncomfortable memories of the fuel strike in 2000 – arguably the closest the country has come to a standstill since the strikes of the early 1970s. What lessons can we learn from the story so far?
Much of the media coverage in the last few days has focused on the government’s poor crisis communications. The criticism would seem to be fully justified as different ministers send out conflicting and contradictory messages. Also, beyond announcing that a small number of RAF personnel are going to be trained to drive tankers; very little has been said about what the government’s contingency plans consist of so they do not provide much reassurance.
Ironically, the fuel strike of 2000 was one of the main drivers for the review of civil contingencies that ultimately led to the Civil Contingencies Act (2004), but it is entirely unclear at this stage how this new legislation has enhanced the government’s ability to respond. This may, of course, become apparent if a strike actually takes place. Fundamentally though the government cannot guarantee supplies of fuel, just as it cannot guarantee to keep the country’s roads open during extreme winter weather. The onus is therefore on individual businesses to plan how they can maintain their critical activities in the event of fuel shortages, just as they should be planning for the loss of any other vital supply.