Lengthy queues of vehicles snaked their way to petrol stations in Britain on Saturday where an acute shortage of truck drivers has led to fuel rationing and some pumps running dry, and prompted the government to consider issuing temporary work visas.
Across the country, motorists waited in long lines to fill up their vehicles. One big distributor said it was rationing sales and a number of operators said they were having to close some forecourts, provoking panic-buying.
Government ministers and oil companies say there are ample stocks of petrol or diesel and there is no cause for alarm, but the lack of truck drivers is hampering transport of fuel from refineries to gas stations.
With retailers also warning of significant disruption to their supplies in the run-up to Christmas, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s office has said it is looking at a short-term fix to address the shortage of heavy goods vehicle (HGV) drivers.
“We’re looking at temporary measures to avoid any immediate problems, but any measures we introduce will be very strictly time limited,” a spokesman for Johnson’s Downing Street office said in a statement.
“Like countries around the world we are suffering from a temporary COVID-related shortage of drivers needed to move supplies around the country.”
The UK’s Road Haulage Association (RHA) says Britain is facing a shortage of some 100,000 drivers, a result of workers leaving the industry, Brexit and Covid-19, which put a stop to driver training and testing for about a year.
Newspapers have reported that the government would allow up to 5,000 foreign drivers into Britain on short-term visas, a measure that logistics companies and retailers have demanded for months but which the government had previously ruled out.
Business leaders and the haulage industry have welcomed the reported plan, but there are also doubts about whether it will go far enough, or if drivers will come to Britain from Europe where countries are also facing labour shortages.
“We’ll have to see if we can attract people for a short period of time,” Huw Merriman, chairman of parliament’s transport committee, told BBC TV.
Brian Madderson, the chairman of the Petrol Retailers Association which represents independent fuel retailers, said he expected the problem to continue for a “while longer”.
“I think this situation is going to get worse before it gets better,” he told Sky News.
The issue came to the fore after BP said it had to close some of its outlets due to the driver shortages, with Shell and ExxonMobil’s Esso also reporting problems with supplies to petrol stations.
EG Group, which runs 341 forecourts across Britain, said on Friday it would impose a purchase limit of £30 (US$41) per customer for fuel due to the “unprecedented customer demand”.
From early on Saturday, motorists began queuing outside filling stations and some forecourts closed as fuel ran out.
“I was out on my bike… and came past my BP garage and it was chaos,” Merriman said. “As soon as the message gets out there might be a fuel shortage, people understandably react.”
Police across the country reported congestion caused by motorists waiting in line, and urged people not to contact them about the problems the traffic was causing.
Britain, the world’s fifth-largest economy, is also grappling with a spike in European natural gas costs causing soaring energy prices and a potential food supply crunch.
Britain says the long-term solution for the haulage industry is for more British drivers to be hired and for them to be paid better.