Up to 90% of British gas stations across major English cities ran out on Monday after panic buying exacerbated a supply chain crisis caused by a truck driver shortage that retailers warned could hit the world’s fifth-largest economy.
A severe shortage of truck drivers after Brexit has left Britain’s supply chains with chaos on everything from food to fuel, raising the specter of unrest and price hikes in the lead-up to Christmas.
Just days after Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government spent millions of pounds to avoid food shortages due to high prices for natural gas, the biggest cost in producing fertilizer, ministers have asked people to refrain from panic buying.
But queues of dozens of cars returned from gas stations across the country on Sunday, swallowing supplies and forcing many stations to simply close. Reuters journalists said pumps in British cities were either shut down or had signs indicating no fuel availability on Monday.
The Gasoline Retailers Association (PRA), which represents independent fuel retailers who now account for 65% of all UK stations, said members reported 50% to 90% of pumps were running dry in some areas.
“We’re unfortunately seeing panic buying for fuel in many areas of the country,” Gordon Palmer, executive director of PR, who has worked for BP for 30 years, told Reuters.
“We need some calm,” Palmer said. “Please don’t panic, buy: if people drain the network, it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
Britain is considering calling on the military to ensure fuel supplies reach consumers, according to The Times and Financial Times.
But carriers, gas stations and retailers have warned that there are no quick fixes because the shortage of truck drivers – estimated at 100,000 – has been so acute and that transporting fuel requires additional training and licensing.
supply chain crisis
Britain’s retail industry warned the government on Friday that unless it moved to ease a severe shortage of truck drivers in the next 10 days, major disruption was inevitable in the run-up to Christmas.
For months, supermarkets, processors and farmers have warned that a shortage of heavy goods vehicle (HGV) drivers is straining supply chains to breaking point — making it difficult to move goods to shelves.
BP said on Sunday that nearly a third of Britain’s gas stations had run out of two major grades of fuel as panic buying forced the government to suspend competition laws and allow companies to work together to alleviate shortages.
Anglo-Dutch oil group Shell said it had also seen an increase in fuel demand.
“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.”
Business Minister Kwasi Kwarting said the suspension would allow companies to share information and coordinate their response.
“This move will allow the government to work constructively with fuel producers, suppliers, carriers and retailers to ensure disruption is minimized,” 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.