It might have escaped your attention but the Government has just published the 2012 version of the National Risk Register of Civil Emergencies, listing catastrophic events that threaten our wellbeing on a major scale.
Tucked in amongst mention of floods, terrorist attacks, serious accidents, and pandemics, is “disruptive industrial action”. It is appropriate that it gets a mention for there is nothing with much greater potential to affect our day to day lives than a tanker drivers’ strike.
The oil supply chain is vulnerable to interruption at almost every level. Witness the handwringing that went on earlier this year when the owners of the Coryton refinery went bust. But while the Essex plant is only one of eight UK refineries supplying the nation with petrol and diesel, the impact of concerted disruption at all these sites, not to mention oil terminals, is what really brings ministers out in a cold sweat.
Remember the 2000 fuel protest. In London the situation became critical with the UK capital getting to within a few hours of serious food shortages.
If widespread disruption occurs again, the Government does have a strategy. If the Army fails to adequately distribute fuel to where it is needed then a pecking order is introduced. The National Emergency Plan for Fuel “includes the possibility of rationing supply to retail customers, and prioritising emergency responders and essential service providers.”After this, any surplus will go to “truck shops and HGV motorway filling stations to help to keep supply chains operational.” Ironically, one school of thought says a little bit of nervous buying by motorists need not be a bad thing. If worried drivers fill up their tanks before they would normally do so, and at the same time perhaps buy more than normal – but while supplies are still being delivered to the UK’s 8,700 forecourts – they are effectively creating a reserve of fuel beyond the point of disruption. Or so the theory goes. Clearly timing is everything and cautious action can soon turn into panic purchases straining the system to breaking and draining garages dry.
It is not something the Prime Minister will want to see tested. He will be hoping the Unite Union can reach an agreement with employers. He will also be praying that the current record prices of petrol and diesel do not extend upwards too far or too soon. A 2000-style protest by motorists themselves would be incendiary, making something like a tanker drivers’ dispute seem small beer.