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Haulage group says Grant Shapps is ‘ridiculous’ to blame it for petrol panic

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The petrol crisis that has resulted in long queues of motorists at forecourts has been primarily blamed on panic-buying, but the government has also taken the opportunity to point the finger at an organisation that has long been a thorn in its side: the Road Haulage Association.

The transport secretary, Grant Shapps, said the panic was sparked after comments made by BP about dwindling stock levels at a Cabinet Office meeting were leaked by “one of the road haulage associations”. And in case there was any ambiguity, sources briefed the Mail on Sunday that the RHA was “entirely responsible for this panic and chaos”.

The RHA says the allegation is false. Rod McKenzie, the RHA’s policy and public affairs director, who was branded a “moaning remainer” by the unnamed source, did not attend the meeting and said he was only made aware of BP’s warning on its forecourt fuel stocks by media inquiries after the comments were reported on television.

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McKenzie told the Guardian: “It was already in the public domain. I said every time I was asked there is not a shortage of fuel. It’s just ridiculous, accusing me of causing people to panic-buy. It’s not fair.”

What the RHA has done for several years is point out the growing lorry driver shortage, and warn that a supply chain crisis would sooner or later hit. A number of factors have contributed to the shortfall of an estimated 100,000 HGV drivers, but the chronic problem was vastly accelerated by Brexit and Covid.

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The RHA did not endear itself to the government by highlighting potential chaos to come in the run-up to Brexit, and the red tape and logjams facing its members, especially those working cross-border from the Channel ports. While other organisations such as Logistics UK moderated public criticism, the RHA denounced the delay and indecision as the clock ticked down and drivers and operators faced huge uncertainty as to whether they could operate. The group has highlighted the massive drop in exports since then.

The RHA, which has been around in various guises for more than 75 years, claims to represent about half of the 500,000-plus lorries on Britain’s roads. That includes the largest haulage firms, such as Eddie Stobart, and some individual owner-operators, but most members are small firms with about five to 20 trucks.

The organisation was barred from at least one pre-Brexit meeting with the government for refusing to sign a non-disclosure agreement. McKenzie said: “The RHA has been a very strident campaigner on behalf of the haulage industry, pointing out the issues … Inevitably organisations become irritants. We’re determined to preserve our independence even if it makes us unpopular.”

Despite the current animosity, the government has taken onboard some of its suggestions to help resolve the crisis, including issuing short-term visas, contacting retired hauliers and beefing up testing capacity.

“A lot of these were our ideas so it’s good to see the government agreeing with us,” said McKenzie. “It’s vital we work with them now on the detail of how these are carried out.”