LONDON (Dispatches) -- The UK government on Friday urged the public against panic-buying as some petrol stations closed pumps due to a lack of lorry drivers to deliver fuel.
Tabloid newspaper The Sun headlined its front page “We’re running on empty”, with the coronavirus pandemic and Brexit triggering an ongoing crisis in the haulage industry.
Newspapers throughout Europe reported about the shortages with triumph, characterizing the situation as a “post-Brexit apocalypse”.
Experts and business leaders have said Brexit and the pandemic have reduced the number of truck drivers working in Britain, affecting supply chains for numerous businesses.
The shortages have closed petrol stations and strained supermarket supply chains to breaking point but the haulage industry cautioned that there were no quick fixes.
Just as the world’s fifth largest economy emerges from the Covid-19 pandemic, a spike in European natural gas prices and a post-Brexit shortage of truck drivers has left Britain grappling with soaring energy prices and a potential food supply crunch.
BP temporarily closed some of its 1,200 UK petrol stations due to a lack of both unleaded and diesel grades, which it blamed on driver shortages. ExxonMobil’s Esso said a number of its 200 Tesco Alliance retail sites had also been impacted.
Queues formed at some petrol stations in London and the southern English county of Kent on Friday as motorists rushed to fill up.
For months supermarkets and farmers have warned that a shortage of truck drivers was straining supply chains to breaking point – making it harder to get goods onto shelves.
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said there was a global shortage of truckers after Covid-19 halted truck driver testing so Britain was doubling the number of tests. Asked if the government would ease visa rules, he said the government would look at all options.
“We’ll do whatever it takes,” Shapps told Sky News. “We’ll move heaven and earth to do whatever we can to make sure that shortages are alleviated with HGV drivers.”
Hauliers and logistics companies, however, cautioned that there were no quick fixes and that any change to testing or visas would likely be too late to alleviate the pre-Christmas shortages as retailers stockpile months ahead.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government has insisted that there will be no return to the 1970s when Britain was cast by allies as the “sick man of Europe” with three-day weeks, energy shortages and rampant inflation.
But as ministers urged the public not to panic buy, some of Britain’s biggest supermarkets have warned that a shortage of truck drivers could lead to just that ahead of Christmas.
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro said that Johnson, whom he met in New York, had asked him for an “emergency” agreement to supply a food product that is lacking in Britain, though the British embassy disputed Bolsonaro’s account.
Such is the strain on the supply chain, McDonald’s had to take milkshakes and bottled drinks off the menu at its British restaurants in August and chicken chain Nando’s ran out of chicken.
Reports said medicines are expiring before even arriving in British hospitals and pharmacies, fruits and vegetables are rotting in the fields, pubs are finding it hard to get hold of beer and water bottles are “evaporating”.
“In many many shops and supermarkets there isn’t milk, and the image of empty shelves has become usual, as if it were a boycotted Cuba,” Spain’s La Vanguardia reported.
Suppliers have warned that there could be more shortages of petrol because of a lack of drivers to transport fuel from refineries to retail outlets.
The British haulage industry says it needs around 100,000 more drivers after 25,000 returned to Europe before Brexit and the pandemic halted the qualification process for new workers.