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Why the British are panicking over buying gasoline

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BURY ST EDMUNDS, SUFFOLK, UK – 2021/09/25: People fill up their cars at the BP gas station during the fuel crisis in Bury St Edmunds.

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LONDON – UK drivers have panicked over buying gasoline in recent days, leading to long queues, gas station closures and fears that doctors and teachers may not be able to get to work .

Government ministers have continuously insisted there is no fuel shortage in the UK, but lines to petrol pumps have multiplied since the end of last week.

Soaring demand has caused the price of a liter of unleaded gasoline to rise by one cent since Friday, according to the automotive organization RAC. Meanwhile, UK retailer Halfords said the sale of jerry cans – which many motorists use to store gasoline – rose 1,656% over the weekend.

Oil giant BP and Exxon Mobil’s Esso confirmed on Friday that they had temporarily closed a handful of their UK service stations due to an industry-wide driver shortage that had had a impact on their supply chains. The problem became widespread this week after days of gas storage by consumers. As of Monday, some service station operators reported that 90% of their sites were dry, according to the UK Petrol Retailers Association.

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps told Sky News on Tuesday the market was seeing “the first very timid signs of stabilization of forecourt storage”, although he acknowledged this would not be reflected in the long lines yet. waiting for gas.

Why do people panic when they buy?

According to the UK government, the UK has a large supply of gasoline. The country’s Environment Minister George Eustice told the BBC on Monday that the only reason gas stations were running low on fuel was because of people buying gasoline when they did not have it. no need.

But it was the logistical challenge of providing this supply to consumers that created the problem. The UK is experiencing an estimated shortage of 100,000 truck drivers, which means deliveries of petrol and other goods are facing serious disruption. The government has taken some steps to help stabilize the supply chain – including putting the military on hold to help deliver fuel – but unease over the situation is still present among consumers.

In fact, most of the blame for the chaos lies in “anxiety, anxiety, anxiety,” according to Cathrine Jansson-Boyd, associate professor of consumer psychology at UK Anglia Ruskin University.

“Panic buying is usually fueled by a certain level of uncertainty,” she told CNBC in a phone call Tuesday. “We did a lot of studies during [the pandemic] which shows that people have been very anxious – people are not aware of that, of course, but they have been very anxious. And that means the foundation is already in place for people to start having levels of concern higher than this surface. “

Jansson-Boyd added that “fear of missing out” manifests itself when people see reports and pictures of others queuing for gasoline.

“People think, ‘Oh my God, if everyone’s doing this, should I do it?’” She explained.

“They keep hearing about it, but they don’t hear a solution. If you think toilet paper and Covid at the start of the pandemic, it was the same thing. There was no solution [being offered]. People felt like they had to do something, and while it’s not rational, we think that unless you do something, things are going to go horribly wrong. So people will buy things even when they don’t need them. “

The government has in recent days announced measures to minimize supply tensions, such as temporary visas for truck drivers and the suspension of competition laws for the fuel industry. However, the three-month visas have been criticized as insufficient to attract foreign drivers, while fuel suppliers and ministers continue to insist that the problem does not lie in refining and supplying gasoline.

“While the government is saying, don’t panic, there is no shortage, people are not hearing a solution,” Jansson-Boyd told CNBC. “What people need to calm down in this situation is to think hard through structures that will reassure them that we have fixed this problem, and it just doesn’t come. anxiety, which means people are going to continue with this kind of irrational panic buying, unfortunately. “

Dominik Piehlmaier, a senior lecturer in marketing at the Business School at the University of Sussex, also told CNBC on Tuesday that people go to gas stations and wait for hours just because they are worried.

Piehlmaier co-led an experiment during the pandemic to assess what might cause people to panic, finding that simply showing people pictures of empty supermarket shelves was enough to raise their level of anxiety and danger. perceived.

“Seeing is believing, so when people see these images, it triggers a reaction, and the intensity of the reaction depends on whether you’ve ever been in a similar situation where you’ve felt vulnerable and helpless, or where you’ve been. feeling that the scale of the situation is greater than your personal strength to overcome it, ”he said on a phone call. “In a situation where you know there is just no fuel around, people have this really strong reaction where they feel the need to go out and look for a gas station that is still serving customers. So, in that sense, the government can say whatever it wants, because as long as the pictures are there, that’s what will trigger the reaction. “

Images in the media or on social media platforms were more likely to resonate with the public than what politicians told them, Piehlmaier added, “because they saw it with their own eyes, and that’s really hard to forget it “.

What is causing the shortage?

The pressure on the fuel supply is not actually caused by a shortage of gasoline, but is caused by a significant shortage of truck drivers.

The UK Road Haulage Association estimates that there is a gap of 100,000 truck drivers in Britain, which has been exacerbated by a host of factors including changes in labor regulations and the pandemic, but also Brexit.

Industry think tank Driver Require estimates that 15,000 EU truck drivers have left the UK so far during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The pandemic has also prevented new drivers from entering the workforce. According to the RHA, only 15,000 people managed to complete their training in 2020, 25,000 fewer than the previous year.

The British government has tried to ease the pressure caused by the exodus of European drivers by introducing thousands of temporary visas in the run-up to Christmas. But without training or hiring drivers capable of filling the void in the long term, experts are worried about the duration of the crisis.

“Frankly, the country is not prepared for people to buy five times more fuel than they do in any given week, that is just not the way the supply chain works. It is very difficult. to fix it to meet this demand in a very short period of time, “Joe Armitage, chief analyst for UK policy at Global Counsel, told CNBC’s” Squawk Box Europe “on Tuesday.

“It’s not really the case that the government is able to prepare in advance for something like this. The economy we are entering is very different from the one we are exiting. Some sectors are much more. taller than before, and areas that are larger are those that require heavy weights [truck] Drivers. [Companies] with the profit margins are able to poach or retain their drivers through a pay raise, but those with the slimmer profit margins – like the downstream oil industry – just can’t afford to do so, so they suffer. “