The effect of those "tanker strikes": fuel sales up 7.2%

Could the panic buying have boosted GDP?

The retail sales index for March 2012 is out, and it is stronger than expected. Year-on-year, sales increased in value by 5.7 per cent and by volume by 3.3 per cent. But there was one line in particular which caught everyone's eye:

Sales volumes growth was driven by other stores, non-store retailing and predominantly automotive fuel.

The volume of automotive fuel sales increased by 7.2 per cent in March compared to March 2011, while the breakdown shows that excluding fuel sales, retail growth was 4.9 per cent (value) or 2.8 per cent (volume), reductions of 0.8 or 0.5 points respectively.

When the government first sparked panic buying over the potential of a fuel tanker strike (which, if not announced today, will definitely not happen unless a second vote is held), there were suggestions that it may have been deliberately induced to boost GDP for the first quarter of 2012. Given we are on the knife-edge of a technical recession, even a 0.1 percentage point increase in GDP growth could be hugely psychologically important.

While it remains unlikely to be deliberate, the possibility that it could actually have that effect is no longer quite so laughable. If even half of the growth in fuel sales was due to the panic, that would mean an increase of 0.4 percentage points in total sales value in March 2012. Given fuel doesn't go off, that would likely be reflected by a similar dip in April 2012 – but April is in the second quarter.

Unpacking the various effects will be tricky, but it would be fascinating indeed if one of the worst ever news cycles for the government resulted in preventing an even worse one.

A petrol station with no fuel. But was it deliberate?

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Is anyone prepared to solve the NHS funding crisis?

As long as the political taboo on raising taxes endures, the service will be in financial peril. 

It has long been clear that the NHS is in financial ill-health. But today's figures, conveniently delayed until after the Conservative conference, are still stunningly bad. The service ran a deficit of £930m between April and June (greater than the £820m recorded for the whole of the 2014/15 financial year) and is on course for a shortfall of at least £2bn this year - its worst position for a generation. 

Though often described as having been shielded from austerity, owing to its ring-fenced budget, the NHS is enduring the toughest spending settlement in its history. Since 1950, health spending has grown at an average annual rate of 4 per cent, but over the last parliament it rose by just 0.5 per cent. An ageing population, rising treatment costs and the social care crisis all mean that the NHS has to run merely to stand still. The Tories have pledged to provide £10bn more for the service but this still leaves £20bn of efficiency savings required. 

Speculation is now turning to whether George Osborne will provide an emergency injection of funds in the Autumn Statement on 25 November. But the long-term question is whether anyone is prepared to offer a sustainable solution to the crisis. Health experts argue that only a rise in general taxation (income tax, VAT, national insurance), patient charges or a hypothecated "health tax" will secure the future of a universal, high-quality service. But the political taboo against increasing taxes on all but the richest means no politician has ventured into this territory. Shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander has today called for the government to "find money urgently to get through the coming winter months". But the bigger question is whether, under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour is prepared to go beyond sticking-plaster solutions. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.