Up to 90% of British fuel stations ran dry across major English cities on Monday after panic buying deepened a supply chain crisis triggered by a shortage of truckers that retailers are warning could batter the world’s fifth-largest economy.
A dire post-Brexit shortage of truck drivers emerging after the COVID-19 pandemic has sown chaos through British supply chains in everything from food to fuel, raising the specter of disruptions and price rises in the run up to Christmas.
Just days after Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government spent millions of pounds to avert a food shortage due to a spike in prices for natural gas, the biggest cost in fertilizer production, ministers asked people to refrain from panic buying.
But lines of dozens of cars snaked back from gasoline stations across the country on Sunday, swallowing up supplies and forcing many gas stations to simply close. Pumps across British cities were either closed or had signs saying fuel was unavailable on Monday, Reuters reporters said.
The Petrol Retailers Association (PRA), which represents independent fuel retailers which now account for 65% of all UK forecourts, said members had reported that 50% to 90% of pumps were dry in some areas.
“We are unfortunately seeing panic buying of fuel in many areas of the country,” Gordon Balmer, executive director of the PRA, who worked for BP for 30 years, told Reuters.
“We need some calm,” Balmer said. “Please don’t panic buy: if people drain the network then it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
Britain is considering calling in the army to ensure fuel supplies reach consumers, according to The Times and Financial Times.
Environment Secretary George Eustice said there was no shortage of fuel and urged people to refrain from panic buying.
Haulers, gas stations and retailers warned that there were no quick fixes, however, as the shortfall of truck drivers – estimated to be around 100,000 – was so acute, and because transporting fuel demands additional training and licensing.
Supply chain crunch
Britain’s retail industry warned the government on Friday that unless it moves to alleviate an acute shortage of truckers in the next 10 days significant 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 was straining supply chains to breaking point – making it harder to get goods onto shelves.
Aldi UK CEO Giles Hurley said that while his discount supermarket chain was in a good position, nobody could guarantee there would not be inflation in the market around Christmas.
BP said on Sunday that nearly a third of its British petrol stations had run out of the two main grades of fuel as panic buying forced the government to suspend competition laws and allow firms to work together to ease shortages.
Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng said the suspension would allow firms to share information and coordinate their response.
“This step will allow government to work constructively with fuel producers, suppliers, haulers and retailers to ensure that disruption is minimized as far as possible,” the business department said in a statement.
The government on Sunday announced a plan to issue temporary visas for 5,000 foreign truck drivers. Around 25,000 truckers returned to Europe before Brexit and Britain was unable to test 40,000 drivers during COVID-19 lockdowns.