Whenever a crisis breaks, as it has with the fuel shortage, the way ministers speak to the public is the government’s most important tool. And it is vital that the messaging is right from the very beginning for a government to show it is in control, with ministers explaining the problem, sharing their plan, and telling the public how to act. Once the public is confused or panicked, it is far harder for a government to restore calm and regain control, whatever its plan might be.
This has been a crisis where the government’s main means of control has been communication. It is also a crisis in which it has been hard to shape public behaviour, but there was more that government could have done, and sooner. It was understandable that ministers did not want to over-react and stoke further panic buying, but it should have identified a single trusted voice to provide early, calm and credible information to the public. And once the queues started the government should have released as much data as possible to inform people’s decisions, and co-ordinated the information shared with the major fuel companies to prevent drip-feeding alarming but partial details to the public. More ordered communications came too late, and it will take days or weeks to recover public confidence.
Recent events should also be a reminder – as if Covid had not been enough – of the need to build up longer term resilience in supply chains and elsewhere, to give the government more tools to intervene when such crises recur.
Spotting crises early is crucial, allowing a government to develop and then communicate its plans. But this government has been hampered by a fear of suffering political damage by over-reacting to a problem that has, in part, been caused by its own choices. There has been a slow burn of labour market and supply chain problems, including a shortage of HGV drivers, which can in-part be blamed on the government’s Brexit deal. Those problems built towards the crisis that began when BP and Esso announced fuel shortages, seemingly catching the government by surprise.
And then when the crisis broke, a failure to set out a controlled message and clear information meant that the government did not rapidly grip the fuel situation. There was a counter-productive caps lock message from one government minister insisting that “THERE IS NO FUEL SHORTAGE!”, while other ministers blamed the media or problems with distribution rather than supply (the distinction makes no difference to a driver whose tank is flashing empty). With no coherent message to reassure, and the facts on the ground contradicting panicked government lines to take, the public reaction was understandable. Making more information available to inform people about supplies, and keeping a tighter control of MPs’ twitter accounts during a crisis would have helped.
During a crisis the media craves action from the government. And in some crises there are things ministers can do. The response to a serious flood demands immediate help for waterlogged residents, and sometimes military support. A terrorist incident tests the first responders to their limits.
In a fuel crisis caused by public reaction rather than other factors (unlike the blockades in the previous fuel shortages in 2000, where the government could negotiate with protestors) there is not much practical difference such interventions can make. Sending in the army to move fuel around will be of limited benefit and brings the risk of soldiers transporting flammable liquids without full training, while new visas for foreign HGV drivers or extending licences for retirees will only make a difference at the margins. It is difficult to prioritise fuel access for key workers, and perceived queue jumping might provoke tempers at potentially volatile petrol station forecourts.
But even low-gain government action can make a difference if its well-presented and well-explained. If the government can persuade people that it is in control, has a plan, and that there is no need to panic, then the public is likely to listen. Learning to get this right, whether for fuel, food, toilet rolls or anything else will be particularly important if we are in for a fragile winter of supply chain disruption.
This short-term fuel crisis, the government’s Covid response and the post-Brexit economic disruption are all a warning for government. The UK needs to sharpen up its response capacity, including more cross-government rehearsals, scenario and communications planning, and to have plans to hand to intervene to, for example, ration goods where necessary. And in the tight financial times ahead ministers must also invest in the infrastructure to withstand the domestic consequences of a more disrupted and uncertain world.
Because these problems are not going away. The looming climate crisis gives us good reason to think that the just-in-time economy that has evolved over many decades needs an injection of resilience, and will cause disruption to the goods and services across the world we rely on to live our lives in the UK. Through the investment decisions and the policy choices it makes, government can increase or reduce the vulnerability of the country to unexpected events.
For now, in the eye of this particular storm, ministers can only focus on immediate response. Getting government communications right, supported by other specific measures that reinforce the message of calm control, is the priority. So far, however, the government has struggled to find the words for the occasion.