The centre-left politician in pole position to replace Angela Merkel as German chancellor has pinpointed the decision to end freedom of movement with Europe after Brexit as the reason for Britain’s petrol crisis.
Olaf Scholz, who is seeking to form a coalition government after the SPD emerged as the biggest party in Germany’s federal elections, said he hoped Boris Johnson would be able to deal with the consequences of the UK’s exit from the EU.
“The free movement of labour is part of the European Union, and we worked very hard to convince the British not to leave the union,” he said.
“Now they decided different, and I hope that they will manage the problems coming from that, because I think it is constantly an important idea for all of us to make it happen that there will be good relations between the EU and the UK, but this is a problem to be solved.”
A number of EU member states, including Germany, have longstanding HGV driver shortages. The most heavily affected countries are Poland (a shortage of 124,000 drivers) and Germany (45,000 to 60,000). But unlike in the UK, companies in the EU have been able to rely on nationals from their neighbours to fill the gaps, and the problems of empty supermarket shelves and panic-buying at petrol station forecourts have been avoided.
On Monday pump prices for fuel in the UK hit an eight-year high as forecourts ran dry, Downing Street faced demands to give ambulance drivers, healthcare staff and other essential workers priority access to fuel, and there were calls for calm as UK fuel suppliers said they expected demand to return to normal “in the coming days”.
The army is being put on standby to help but ministers decided against immediately deploying troops to drive lorries.
It emerged on Monday night that the NHS was being forced to postpone appointments for cancer patients and other people with serious conditions as a result of the fuel crisis.
Several cancer patients due to attend appointments this week at University College hospital, one of London’s largest hospitals, have been told they will have to be rescheduled, the Guardian has learned.
A UCLH spokesperson confirmed that a “small number” of patients were having appointments rearranged, but insisted that no patients requiring urgent treatment would have their treatment delayed.
The fuel crisis has sparked a debate over whether and to what degree Brexit is to blame. Last week Grant Shapps, the transport secretary, said Europe’s driver shortage was equal to or worse than Britain’s, and claimed leaving the EU had helped “provide a solution”.
But Anna Soubry, a former Tory business minister who quit the party over Brexit, said Scholz was right and added: “It’s like something happened to our country and no one is allowed to speak truth to the power of Boris Johnson and his Brexit.”
She said: “We are now facing up to the reality of Brexit. We have got shortages. We are going to have inflation and we are not going to be the country we were before we took this decision. Saying this stuff isn’t criticising the people who voted for it.
“The criticism is levelled at the leaders of the leave campaign … who went out and told lies to the British people and who promised sunlit uplands.”
The shadow justice secretary, David Lammy, blamed a bad Brexit deal and said Labour should make this clear to the public. “This is their [the government’s] deal: this is the consequences,” he said.
“We exited the customs union … hauliers now pay tariffs to come into the country … the incentives to be here aren’t there in the same way.”
A report from Transport Intelligence, a research company specialising in the logistics industry, described the UK as entering a “Bermuda triangle of Brexit, pandemic and tax reforms/peak seasons, leading to a pressing driver shortage in the UK”.
Scholz echoed Johnson’s own explanation for the shortage of drivers in some European countries. He said: “Let me just add it might have to do something with the question of wages … They want to know if it’s something very good for their whole life and if you understand that being a trucker is something which many people really like it to be, and you find not enough [people], this has something to do with working conditions and this has to be thought about.”
The accumulation of problems in the UK in recent weeks – from empty supermarket shelves, gas shortages, a lack of petrol on forecourts and the short supply of CO2required for services ranging from the running of abattoirs to the production of fizzy drinks – has been seized upon in the European media as being part of the Brexit fallout.
Libération, a French newspaper, ran a front page with an empty toilet paper roll bearing the words: “Brexit: Les lendemains qui déchantent” (The tomorrows that failed to deliver).
According to Transport Intelligence, Brexit made it “legally impossible to recruit foreign HGV drivers”, while the Covid pandemic created a backlog of tests and led to about 15,000 eastern European drivers returning home, many of them for good.
The number of EU nationals driving HGVs in the UK rose from 10,000 to 45,000 between 2010 and 2017, and fell to 42,000 in early 2020. From March to June 2020 the number of EU HGV drivers declined to 25,000, recovering only slightly to 28,000 by the end of the year.
The government has introduced tax changes that Transport Intelligence said had exacerbated the exodus from the UK by obliging all contractors with a turnover of £10m or 50 staff to pay full tax and national insurance on their drivers, starting in April 2021.
Michael Clover, the head of commercial development at Transport Intelligence, said: “It is a perfect storm really. We don’t have the lever of other international drivers to come in like most of Europe so capacity can be shuffled around, because we are no longer in the EU. Poland has for a long time been a net exporter of drivers but you can fill some of those gaps with drivers from Lithuania or Hungary or from Romania, Bulgaria and a few other EU states.”