BP said nearly a third of Britain’s gas stations ran out of two major fuels on Sunday as panic buying forced the government to suspend competition laws and allow companies to work together to alleviate shortages.
Queues of vehicles formed at gas stations for a third day in a row as motorists waited, some for hours, to fill up after oil companies reported that a lack of drivers caused problems with transportation from refineries to pumps.
Some operators have had to ration supplies and others have closed gas stations.
“With the intense demand we’ve seen over the past two days, we estimate that around 30% of sites in this network currently do not have any of the major fuel grades,” BP, which operates 1,200 sites in Britain, said in a statement.
“We are working to restore supplies as quickly as possible.”
The fuel scare comes as Britain faces several crises: high international gas prices that are forcing energy companies out of business, food-grade carbon dioxide shortages that threaten to hamper meat production and a shortage of truck drivers causing chaos. Retailers are leaving some shelves bare.
Anglo-Dutch oil group Shell said it had also seen an increase in fuel demand.
In response, Business Minister Kwasi Kwarting said he had suspended competition laws to allow companies to share information and coordinate their responses.
“This move will allow the government to work constructively with fuel producers, suppliers, carriers and retailers to ensure disruption is as reduced as possible,” the business department said in a statement.
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps had earlier called for calm, saying the shortages were only caused by panic buying and that the situation would eventually resolve on its own because the fuel could not be stored.
“There is a lot of fuel, and there is no shortage of fuel inside the country,” Shapps told Sky News.
“So the most important thing is for people to keep working like they normally do and fill up their cars when they normally do, you won’t have queues and you won’t have a pump shortage either.”
After a meeting with Kwarteng, industry figures including representatives from Shell and Exxon Mobil said in a joint statement issued by the Department of Business that they had received reassurance, and stressed that there was no shortage of fuel nationwide.
Earlier, Shapps said the shortage of truck drivers was due to COVID-19 disrupting the onboarding process, preventing new labor from entering the market.
Others blamed Brexit and poor working conditions for forcing foreign drivers out.
On Sunday, the government announced a plan to issue temporary visas to 5,000 foreign truck drivers.
But business leaders have warned that the government’s plan is a short-term fix and will not solve an acute labor shortage that threatens to disrupt significantly beyond fuel deliveries, including for retailers in the run-up to Christmas.
Shapps described the fuel panic as an “artificial situation” and blamed it on the Transport Operators Association.
“They desperately need more European drivers who are cutting Britons’ salaries,” he said.
An opinion poll published by the Observer newspaper on Sunday showed that 67% of voters think the government has handled the crisis poorly. A majority of 68% said Brexit was partly to blame.
Opposition Labor leader Keir Starmer, speaking at his party’s annual conference in southern England, said ministers failed to plan for a labor shortage after the 2016 Brexit vote, and called for a larger temporary visa scheme.