Opinion: Government’s fuel top-up advice has been a serious miscalculation

My heart sank when I heard Ed Davey telling the nation to fill its petrol tanks. It seemed very likely, tipping over into obvious, that Ed Davey’s statements would feed into the kind of behaviour that we have seen in recent days, and it’s disturbingly clear that the coalition government had taken a position to promote the topping-up of tanks. That was a serious miscalculation of the likely results.

What proportion of motorists fill up less often than once a week? I suspect that it’s a minority. So what is the point of advice to top up a minimum of seven days ahead of any actual strike? It has to be said that the union is handling this in an apparently “responsible” way – ‘let’s negotiate, no strike over Easter, we want to talk’.

Contingency plans to ensure supplies for emergency services make perfect sense, and that is the government’s job. And, of course, Unite promised to ensure those supplies from the day they announced the ballot result. But government advice to top-up but not queue is silly, and has resulted in fuel shortages where there was no need for any.

It seems to have been a coalition decision to push the “top-up” policy. Training army drivers for tanker duties, negotiating guaranteed supplies for public services (but not individual teachers, nurses, etc – that’s impossible) is the job of government. People would notice and start to top-up a bit more often.

But several days of the “top-up” policy is just mad. It’s changing now, but the damage is done. Lib Dem ministers should ponder how illogical this whole escapade has been, and how they may have been included in a campaign to demonise a union which might, just possibly, be engaged in a legitimate demand.

* Ed was a Young Liberal in the late 1960s, a supporter on and off over the years and finally rejoined the party in 2010.

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  • Richard Dean 2nd Apr '12 - 6:09pm

    However, having now arrived at B, people will be using fuel over the coming days, possibly resulting in everyone reaching A more or less at the same time, possibly indeed at the worst time! So it will repeat …

  • The number of stations said to be without one or both major fuels by the Retail Motor Industry spokesman is pretty high, with rural stations in particular predicted to be dry for several days to come. That was the problem (though I’m sure they have other vested interests behind the request for urgent talks) – to ramp up the pressure quickly, rather than use “nudge” tactics.

  • ……………………My assumption is that we are now in a B. situation (I certainly am – I filled up a few days before the media storm), with most fuel tanks being fairly full and that is a good thing for the country……………

    Really? So, instead of the fuel being at petrol stations (where those who need it can buy it), the fuel is in cars and petrol stations are closed.
    Seeing closed stations, and long queues at those that are open, merely adds to the sense of crisis and the cycle repeats.
    The extra, lunatic, advice from Maude/Davy that we should hoard fuel is beyond belief.

  • Richard Dean 2nd Apr '12 - 8:36pm

    Simon, How would they do that? Stop motoring? Fill more frequently? Meaning more queues? Isn’t that just stretching out the pain?

  • “What proportion of motorists fill up less often than once a week? I suspect that it’s a minority”.

    Evidence suggests that it is the majority. The average car travels about 8k miles a year, which is about 1000 litres a year. Assuming you fill up 50 litres a go, that is only 20 trips to the pumps. In fact, most people do a disproportionate amount of travel in short periods – driving long distances at Christmas, or for the summer holidays. So the rest of the year they would visit the pumps even less than 20 out of 52 weeks. I doubt I go to the pumps more than monthly for 10 out of 12 months.

    I have filled up – because my gauge showed I only had 60 miles worth, and had to drive to Oxford and back. Given my petrol use, I am now clear right the way through any strike – leaving any petrol that does get through for those who need more per week than me. That is useful, surely, and what Ed and others were trying to achieve?

    That said, the man in front topped up an almost full car – he bought just £2.50 worth of fuel. That is the sort of behaviour Ed was trying to discourage – and rightly so. It just causes congestion.

  • Simon, you quote that you are in ‘B’. However, if you “filled up a few days before the media storm”, that means that in about a week you have used about a quarter of a tank. Was your situationin any way serious? I imagine that many, many motorists are in the same situation whilst those who needed fuel couldn’t get it..

  • Tim, thanks for the numbers. Can I rephrase the question? “What proportion of petrol is sold to people who top up less frequently than once a week?”

  • I am not sure Tim’s numbers are particularly robust. The 8K pa seems a bit low

  • Richard Dean 2nd Apr '12 - 9:48pm

    I’m not sure Ed’s question is the right one to ask. Adam Smith’s invisible hand has probably adjusted the number of filling stations to be about right to cater for average circumstances . No matter how much mileage you do, the only way to keep a tank fuller than normal, while doing the same mileage, is to visit the pumps more often, thereby increasing the rate at which petrol stations will be used . Hence there will be more queues than average.

    Especially around and just after Easter, which is perhaps one of those times when people use a disproportionate amount of fuel, visting and going to fun places etc, or not as the case may be.

  • And when you factor in – as the industry keeps squealing – that the much reduced number of stations is forced by pricing structures to rely more and more on just-in-time supply and relatively low top-up levels for underground tanks, the invisible hand is living in a precarious world.

  • Richard Dean 2nd Apr '12 - 11:41pm

    @Simon. Ha ha! Will motorists really do that? All that math? And the cars will be carrying more weight around, so creating more noxious gasses.

  • , ………..I am not clear why you think that “in about a week you have used about a quarter of a tank”. ………

    Simon, you identified B as “2/3 or 3/4 full on average” and also that you were in the ‘B’ catagory….from that I assumed that you had used that amount of fuel.

    ………….I have used less than a 10% of a tankful in the last week. As to whether my situation was “serious” it was so only in the sense that I was fairly low before I filled up with 60 litres.I really don’t follow what point you are making…………

    You have confirmed the point I was making i.e ‘even those who would normally visit the station every month/6 weeks, and who would feel absolutely comfortable with 1/4 tank, felt obliged, by coalition statements, to ‘top up’; hence the empty stations/long queues..

  • Don’t you think it would be worthwhile to remind people to conserve fuel by reducing the rate of consumption? This can be done by careful use of the accelerator pedal, maintaining a safe distance from the car in front to reduce braking and driving the car at it’s optimum speed outside the speed limits. Thus a reduction in consumption of say 5 mpg would increase the range ofa 60 litre tank vehicle by65 miles. Sanctimonious I know but more sensible than Mr Maud and Ed Davey might have mentioned it.

  • I can not remember a single previous occasion on which government has advised the public, in response to impending difficulties, to panic. A responsible government would have tried to calm any sense of panic and advised people to carry on as normally as possible as indeed every previous government has done. The only occasion I can recall where a government minister has acted so irresponsibly and incompetently is Edwina Currie’s advice on eggs during the salmonella scare but at least simply stopping buying eggs does not amount to the dangers that panic buying results in.

    There are only two reasonable interpretations of the advice offered by the government: one is that they are incompetent and the other is that they engineered a panic for political gain. The former would make them a very poor choice for government but not outside the realms of normality for it. However, the latter would show them to be unfit for public office as they would have abnegated their prior responsibility to govern.

    Although, on the plus side, we may have technically avoided recession with the boost to fuel sales coming at the end of the last quarter.

  • coldcomfort 3rd Apr '12 - 1:55pm

    Having got something that passes for a life I don’t watch every news bulletin so I must have missed Ed Davey urging people to top up their fuel tanks. I did catch David Cameron giving that advice on a number of occasions.

  • Did anyone else see the Telegraph piece:


    The feeling of ‘panic’ was not an accident, the Tories wanted political benefit from this. Ed Davey, in fairness, gave a more measured message than Francis Maude who did not even know the rules on petrol storage. However, with a 7 day mandatory notice period the message should always have been one of calm preparedness, stressing the fact that nothing could happen for that period.

    However, this would not have given the Tories their ‘Thatcher’ moment…

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