/ Motoring

Petrol panic in the UK: what’s really going on?

Many of the UK’s petrol stations have run dry after a frenzy of panic buying over the last few days. Have you been affected by the situation?

News broke late last week that, while the UK has plenty of fuel, it isn’t always where it’s most needed due to the HGV driver shortage.

Panic buying followed with people sharing reports of fuel deliveries on social media and whipping one another into a frenzy of fuel buying and queues.

The chair of the Petrol Retailers Association explained to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme:

‘”As soon as a tanker arrives at a filling station, people on social media are advising that a tanker has arrived and then it’s like bees to a honey pot. Everyone flocks there and, within a few hours, it’s out again”

There are reports that the situation is beginning to stabilise, with the army on standby to help with fuel distribution if they are needed.

But what impact has it had on you? And is there any excuse for panic buying? 

Should I stock up on fuel?

The official advice is to only buy what you need. If you do not need to top up, don’t. It’s also a bad idea to keep jerry cans full of fuel in your home. 

Our very own Gareth Shaw, appearing on Monday on Channel 4’s Steph’s packed Lunch, explained the situation:

Have you been affected by the fuel situation?

Has the panic buying of petrol caused you to rethink how you get around? If so, how?
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Have you seen examples of price gouging? What impact has panic buying had on you? Has the situation made you consider moving to an electrical vehicle sooner than you otherwise may have?

Do you have any questions for us?

Let us know your views in the comments.

Comments
Michael Jacobs says:
2 October 2021

The Government must despair at the stupidity of some of the citizens it serves. Much of industry operates on “just in time” logistics which in turn enables cheaper goods and services. Changes in pubic behaviour cannot be catered for in an instance. However it will be overcome. It is in the interest of business to be prosperous and so recruitment of HGV drivers will improve eventually through a combination of attention to pay, work life balance and road facilities. Had the BBC not made the potential challenge to fuel deliveries a major story, then the panic buying would not have ensued.

All the media picked up on this and no doubt social media played its part. You cannot suppress “news” nor the way it is portrayed.
Using “frenzy”and “panic” by responsuble organisations is no help.

But if that is an accurate description, then why should they not?

Is the media supposed to suppress news that affects our lives? I hope not. I wonder how news could be presented without raising concerns.

‘Just in time’ is fine for fresh foods, and if businesses want to adopt this approach for non-essential products that’s their choice. If that’s how the fuel companies operate then no wonder we have seen problems.

Just in time is applied to many businesses, from manufacturing to food to fuel, to keep costs contained for one. The fuel industry has successfully worked this way for a long time, it seems, but can be easily upset by a change in behaviour. This is an issue hat needs to be considered in the light of recent events, but the remedy seems to lie in the hands of the haulage industry to ensure they provide the necessary service. That may well mean improving working conditions and wages; perhaps redeploying drivers from less-essential work might help.

All over the country there are disused filling stations alongside the major roads and in small towns and villages as the supply of road fuel has progressively switched to supermarkets and motorway service stations.

These disused sites [which are now often operating as car sales premises and valeting facilities or as small grocery outlets] might still have large [but empty] fuel tanks beneath them, but it is likely that the fuel tanks under the remaining filling stations have not necessarily been increased in capacity so they have to be replenished more frequently.

Telemetering equipment relays the fuel levels to the suppliers and supplies are delivered when there are a few days’ provision at normal depletion rates left in the tanks. To replenish any differently would be inefficient and ultimately increase the costs that feed into prices. The picture is complicated by the different types and grades of road fuel required by vehicles and the inability to substitute one for another.

A drop in demand, as occurred during the lockdowns, is not a problem, but a sudden spike is more difficult to cope with. Hence the problems we have seen. Relying on a tanker fleet in the hands of a number of different companies supplying the different brands of fuel to differently branded forecourts adds to the logistical difficulties of dealing with a temporary supply anomaly. You won’t see a Sainsbury’s tanker topping up the tanks of a Waitrose filing station, for example, even though the Sainsbury’s branded tanker might be owned and operated by a contract haulage company that also services the sites of other supermarkets and possibly contains a generic fuel.

All-electric motoring is the long-term solution to most of these difficulties and removes reliance on wagonloads of different fuels having to be carted around the country; however, there is no end in sight for the requirement for diesel road fuel for the heavy haulage industry. So long as there is reliability of electricity supply, with either no outages or reserve battery capacity, electric traction for light vehicles will be much more efficient.

Also, given that for a large percentage of vehicles, recharging does not need to be concentrated in specific and extremely sophisticated facilities for safety reasons, there will be much more flexibility in the system although it will be essential to have a network of recharging stations at frequent intervals and existing filling station forecourts will probably have a major role initially until vehicle batteries improve to provide more range and greater rationalisation occurs. Being able to recharge from a 13A socket anywhere will change the logistics of mobility. Generating capacity will then become the determining factor and that’s a different story.

“Frenzy” and “panic”. When does rational resourcefulness turn into a stampede with anti-social consequences?

Hearing the “news” that there could be a temporary supply problem at a small number of filling stations, some people decided to stock up for the week ahead. In each individual case, possibly a highly sensible decision. Each person probably told somebody else, the story flew around social media, and queues started forming on the approaches to filling stations.

Before long, the herd realised that if they didn’t get in quickly they could end up back in lockdown for a week or more and it soon became a case of the devil take the hindmost.

I can’t see how this can be prevented, or, in a rapidly moving scenario, at what point ‘the authorities’ can intervene and recognise the emergence of a run on the petrol pumps, any more than the government could anticipate the run on the Northern Rock Bank in 2007 as a result of the collapse in confidence over its ability to repay savers’ funds.

” All-electric motoring is the long-term solution to most of these difficulties ……. We should not underestimate the difficulty in achieving that – apart from the capacity to manufacture and replace batteries (worldwide, of course, not just on our island).

An electricity supply that can deal with the huge added loads of electric vehicles, home heating and cooking, needs appropriate generating and distribution capacity and I see no sign of any substantial increase in that, not that will come on stream in the next few years. Nuclear is staggering on with a new build well behind schedule. Wind and solar are most unlikely to be adequate and we have seen recently what happens with a variable supply – little wind, little power.

And we are not alone; other countries will be following the same path, competing for the same engineering resources and materials.

”Generating capacity will then become the determining factor and that’s a different story.”. Absolutely. If I am still around when the time comes I think I’ll still be thinking of a pony and trap.

I agree. We are miles away (pardon the pun) from having sufficient non-fossil generating capacity to supply all of the activities that currently generate net CO2. In addition to the existing demand, of which only just under half is currently covered, we need to add transport, heating and industry. If we are to stop producing CO2 in steel manufacture, for example, we need to produce hydrogen by electrolysis to use as a reducing agent instead of coke. To do this now, would take all of the renewable electricity currently produced worldwide.

Then there is the variability of wind and solar. Currently, the world has sufficient storage capacity to cover a period of a few minutes. Last month, we had very much reduced wind and solar for about 3 weeks.

Many so called experts are banging on about heat pumps and the hydrogen economy, but they seem to ignore the elephant in the room. We need a huge programme to build more nuclear power stations and we need to invest “as much as it takes” to develop a viable fusion reactor.

Dr P. N. Jarvis says:
3 October 2021

I live in a corner of North Wales where there are still steam railways. They are one of the main tourist attractions of the area (after mountains and castles!) and use Welsh steam coal, which is wonderful stuff – all but smokeless, and the local forests pick up the carbon dioxide. But the proposal to close down the Welsh coal industry means that lower quality coal will have to be brought expensively from Silesia or the Donetz basin at greater cost and resulting in more pollution from diesels to bring it here. Add to that, Welshmen will be out of a job and I wonder if we are doing the right thing. The total requirement of the steam railways of the UK is about 30,000 tons a year – trivial compared with the vast amounts mined elsewhere.
Welsh coal is nowadays quarried by untopping old coal mines, once mined by pillar-and-stall, that left half the coal in the ground. You take off the top and put it back in the hole when you have finished, quite neat and tidy.

In terms of “all-electric motoring” and the lack of generating capacity we need to consider whether ordinary private cars should be able to travel at more than fifty miles an hour, should have a range of more than 200 miles a week on average, should have a capacity of more than five people and 150 kilos of baggage, should weigh more than 1500 kilos [before batteries], and should have towing capacity. This should be the end of SUV’s, people carriers, limousines, and of wealthy people being able to buy their way round the carbon reduction problem by consuming excess electricity.

It would be best for any long journey to include a substantial element of public transport and for all special transport needs [e.g. load carrying, multiple passenger transport, off-road activity, camper van/motor home] to be supplied by an expanded hire trade.

Should there be imposed limits on the distance to work travelled by car? Should the number of occupants be a factor?

Alternatively, could pricing and taxation mechanisms achieve the necessary reductions in consumption and still be fair to all?

Can the value of time, of contact with family, of convenient local shopping and social activity, be developed to compensate for the adverse effect of such changes to our way of life.

Previous attempts to disperse employment have had limited success and many of the new towns created in the 1950’s and ’60’s have become commuter dormitories as the conurbations have expanded rather than recoiled. Should major sporting and entertainment events continue to take place in the capital? [Was this year’s Oxford & Cambridge Boat Race any the less for taking place on the River Great Ouse in Ely? There are many high-quality stadia outside London capable of hosting all types of Cup Final.]

I don’t think we can just put all our faith in big power station projects to get us out of the situation we are in within the timescales enacted for carbon reduction. Alternatives have to be contemplated.

Once the expected demand had set in, a rational reaction not a frenzied panic, the Petrol Retailers’ Association and the major forecourt groups – Tesco, Sainsbury, BP, Esso, Shell – could have mitigated the problem by limiting sales to, say, £30. That would have got 2 or 3 times as many customers with adequate fuel in their tanks.

And, conversely. by not so doing a frenzy of petrol buying was introduced, leading to many to panic.

The major problem, in fact, is probably many motorists driving only to reach filling stations. In the first shortage I endured (this is my third) car drivers were queueing for long periods, often managing only to get a pint or less into their already brimming tanks. Funny old world.

David Walker says:
3 October 2021

Rather than a maximum spend of £30, a maximum spend of £45 would prevent unnecessary topping up

It is a nice autumn day and I will offer my apologies for absence. I had offered to run a small charity event long before the fuel shortage started. Thankfully there does not seem to have been any shortage in our town, so I am happy to do a 40 mile round trip. I have switched to supporting a local charity which is much nearer and saves driving, but it’s good to meet up with people I have known for years.

Pete Simpson says:
3 October 2021

I travel approx 500 miles a week around Scotland & N England. Usually fill up only when tank very low – carry 5Lt can just in case I get caught short.
During the current circumstances I refuel at half tank level to give myself extra margin for error.

Dr P. N. Jarvis says:
3 October 2021

I live in two places 200 miles apart. It has for years been cheaper to keep a car at both ends and to travel by train between them. The problem has been that the trains have been reduced from six a day to two – and one of those has only just been reinstated. Likewise you cannot have the reduced fares for advanced bookings. It is expensive, but one has to shrug and get on with it.
One cannot but wonder how much of this is due to our Government having an advisory referendum on Brecsit, then taking the view of 37% of the population as a fiat to leave the EU. It is basic politics – or so I was taught in the Sixth Form – that you do not make major political decisions on marginal votes.

Dr Jarvis — Was it not democratically decided by Parliament that the decision to quit the EU would be taken by a simple majority of the electors voting across the entire UK? Thus the “major political decision” was not made by politicians but by the voters. That the outcome could be marginal was one of the risks the politicians knowingly took. It would have been politically unsustainable for the government to have resiled from the verdict of the referendum, and labelling it as “advisory” never had any legitimate foundation.

It is arguable that more people are content with the outcome now than at the time of the referendum, current difficulties notwithstanding.

Les Stiff says:
4 October 2021

Both my vehicles are electric so have been feeling quite smug driving past the queues. However, it’s panic buying that has caused the problem.

”One in five forecourts in London and the South East of England are still without fuel, the body that represents independent fuel sellers has said.”.
https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-58786269
Another way of expressing this is that 80% of forecourts in this area now have fuel.
Which do we prefer?

” The trade body said the situation around London and the South East was “still challenging”. In these areas, it said 52% of the sites surveyed had both grades of fuel available, 18% had only one grade and 20% were dry.
Have I missed something or did the thorough reporter not wonder what the other 10% had?

Which? seems to have been rather quiet on the developing situation once they had used up “frenzy” and “panic”.

Malcolm asks: “… did the thorough reporter not wonder what the other 10% had?”

As it’s the results of a survey, maybe 10% replied Don’t Know. The other answer, although well past its Best Before date, is it’s a Total mystery.

My neighbour drove back from London yesterday after being away for a couple of months. She was very fed-up about the difficulties she and others had experienced obtaining fuel. It’s no help to blame the public for the problems she and those who need to travel for work have experienced. What shall we blame the public for next?

Perish the thought that consumers bore any responsibility. It must be down to the government, business, or “someone else”.

If we thought about people other than ourselves we would have self-rationed our fuel purchasing. Just like not congregating during Covid-19 against regulations and advice.

Consumers who did not contribute to the problem – including my neighbour – have been affected by it. Most people not stockpiled fuel more than filling their tank. The shortage of drivers had been foreseen.

Keeping your tank filled when most would not normally is, of course, the stockpiling that assisted the problem. Just because it is a natural reaction does not mean it was not responsible.

We have had a shortage of drivers for a long time. The balance between supply and demand was held, as for many years, until consumers were spooked. That balance is currently being restored, it seems.

Where we have a driver shortage natural forces need to deploy them in the most necessary industries. That should mean restricting deliveries of bottles of water and beer, perhaps, or using smaller vehicles, until order is restored – by training more UK drivers. I have no objection to using services drivers when they ar not deployed elsewhere; we pay their wages.

There was far less traffic on the road during the main Covid-19 problem, using far less fuel. We managed our lives then, of course.

Let’s avoid fueling any more frenzied panic and things should return to normal.

malcolm r says: Today 18:20

Keeping your tank filled when most would not normally is, of course, the stockpiling that assisted the problem.

D’you mean aggravated the problem, by any chance?

Just because it is a natural reaction does not mean it was not responsible.

So you believe it is the responsible course of action?

You can use whichever word you wish.

I said it was a natural reaction.
” Just because it is a natural reaction does not mean it was not responsible“. This did not mean it was (a) responsible (reaction). It was meant to suggest that the “natural reaction” was “responsible” for the outcome – the resulting shortage. I hope that clarifies the comment.

Ah. The attributive and predicative aspects of the adjective were unclear to me at the time. The delights of linguistic ambiguity.

I have ordered a present for my grandson on 2-3 days delivery for this coming weekend. I have just had an email advising there may be a delay. I phoned them up and it appears they had a bit of a staff shortage in their warehouse, so it is a picking time problem not a shortage of stock or delivery drivers.

I told them it was for a birthday and the lady said she would keep an eye on my order and email me, but hoped all would be well.

I am well aware that if all their affected customers told a similar story the system would not be able to help those who had, perhaps, deadlines to try to meet. Of course, all their customers might be in the same boat and we must just accept these problems happen.

https://www.which.co.uk/news/2021/10/revealed-the-secret-to-choosing-the-perfect-electric-bike/

As the article begins, the recent brief fuel problem will have inspired some to consider other forms of transport, including electric bikes. What I would like to have seen was a clear review of any UK-made bikes in the mix, good or bad, so I might support UK manufacturing.

Do we actually manufacture any decent motors, control systems, and the bikes they go in? Dawes, Volt, Brompton, HurrEcane?

It would be nice to see Which? helping home-grown industry by highlighting it. Bad reviews might inspire the manufacturers, good might shift the purchasing balance.

Rather like electric cars, I’d ask why such industries are not encouraged and supported by the government, given the growing need for electric transport. Maybe Which? could start a campaign?

There is a firm named Jorvic making excellent electric tricycles in York. I saw one recently and had a chat with the rider. I was so impressed I am thinking of getting one to get me around town now that my joints and hinges are making walking uncomfortable.

Really? An electric tricycle? How many thousands do they cost? I bet you can’t take one on a bus or train. And how big are they?

‘…recent brief fuel problem…’ Boris has said that problems could continue to Christmas. A friend who lives in Chesham has been relating a tale about the challenges finding fuel. We seem OK in the north.

I have friends who live in York and will try to find out about Jorvik, which John mentioned.

The situation is greatly improved in that part of the world.

This is what I received less than two days ago from someone who lives there: “We’re still struggling for petrol – it’s very difficult to get in or out of Chesham because the queues for the garages block the roads.”

I believe Chesham & Amersham are under new management now. Perhaps that has contributed to the problem.

The Jorvik [correct spelling – apologies for my previous error] website gives full details of a range of electric tricycles including prices. I haven’t fully explored the pro’s and cons yet.

Yes, they can be expensive, they are wider than a bicycle but about the same length, and some are folding types which might be transportable on a train or road coach. I don’t think there would be much advantage in taking them on a bus. They have a range of around 35 miles depending on how much pedal power you supply yourself. On the battery alone they run at 5 mph.

This could be a passing fancy, but who knows?

I would be inclined to borrow or hire one to see if it was suitable, John. A couple of years ago I was thinking about buying a folding bike, with the intention of putting it in the boot of the car for exploring rural places away from home. A friend lent me his British made folding bike but I soon realised that it was not for me. It was far harder to pedal than my old full-size bike and heavy enough to make it a struggle to put in the car. I promptly returned it.

Yes, Wavechange, that is one of my concerns. I wouldn’t get a folding type and I would like to see how much effort is needed when ascending hills. Since I no longer drive, the primary benefit is to provide an independent means of transport for journeys of perhaps two to three miles across and around the city; it would also allow me to sit, taking the weight and pressure off my legs and feet. I would not feel happy on the roads on a bicycle these days, even electrically assisted, and I am not yet ready for a mobility scooter, so a tricycle seemed like a good idea. I am hoping it will be possible to try before I buy.

”it’s very difficult to get in or out of Chesham because the queues for the garages block the roads.”. Two days ago perhaps but none if my contacts reported any severe problems. And certainly no longer the case, from a number of Chesham residents I spoke to today. This is what causes people to panic into buying more than they need.

Let’s hope normality has returned.

When a friend I trust provides information I tend to believe it.

It illustrates to me that the ‘just in time’ business model for road fuel has let us down. Either we have to prioritise key workers in future or change the business model.

Micheal Gallagher says:
7 October 2021

Hello Which, i don’t drive but walk quite long distances regularly in order to remain fittish,if more people who do not need to drive walked more often they might reap the benefits and improve the environment,

Keith Filby says:
7 October 2021

Irresponsible reporting by the BBC and others caused the fuel panic, it was not necessary. They deliberately ‘twist’ real data to make news. For instance 10% of X isn’t working, not 90% of X is working. There needs to be a public enquiry into the governance of the BBC.

Carol Hicks says:
8 October 2021

I agree. There should be some comeback on the media for inciting panic and they should be fined for doing so.

The anti-BBC messages about fuel panic are political and should be stopped. They are trying to ship the blame from the government purely on the BBC and is part of a de-fund the BBC campaign. It has nothing to do with the BBC

Here is an article about how applying the ‘just in time’ business model for petrol supply fuelled the recent problems: https://news.sky.com/story/how-an-extra-five-litres-of-petrol-meant-the-country-ground-to-a-halt-12426700

“Normally independent forecourts operate with their storage tanks around 40% full.” If this is true then perhaps it would be worth filling the storage tanks to help reduce the risk of future shortages.

Goodness knows how much time – and fuel – has been wasted by drivers searching for fuel, and some have not been able to go to work.

‘Just in time’ helps minimise food waste and if business wants to use this for non-essential goods, that’s up to them.

”If firms revert to holding more stock, this will increase their operating costs, with knock-on effects for consumer prices,” said Dr Anthony Flynn at Cardiff Business School.” If we want higher prices then follow this route.

Not much of an article. During the “crisis” my reading of Sky reports was they were one of the worst offenders fuelling the crisis. I would look elsewhere for less biased views. They say just 5 litres extra per purchase tipped the balance and that is not much; well, it is an extra 20% and that is very significant. They reported that ”one in five forecourts in the Southeast were out of fuel”. 4 out of 5 did have fuel, of course. It’s how you tell ‘em! ( however, it is good to see in their report yesterday a change of tack: ” sky news l
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Fuel crisis: Nine in ten forecourts outside London and South East stocked with both grades

JiT is widely practiced worldwide in many organisations to use facilities most efficiently and keep costs down, including the food retailing industry. It relies on getting the balance between demand and supply right. They seem to have it right generally as it has worked well for decades.

However an “unexpected incident” can upset the balance, whether blocking the Suez Canal or someone sparking off a “shortage” scare. We seem to have recovered; 15 of us met up a couple of nights ago and discussed the problems we were having, and no one had any problem then getting fuel nor being held up in queues.

I wonder how much extra it would cost to keep more stock at filling stations, provided capacity is available. The recent shortages have caused major upheavals for some people and businesses and the costs may far outweigh the cost of fuel storage.

Fortunately I have never run out of fuel in my car. When the fuel gauge is down to a quarter I fill up next time I am passing the supermarket filling station. If I am planning a long journey I will fill up before setting off even if the tank is still half full. At one time I kept a full 10 litre can at home – but that was back in the days of leaded petrol. Maybe I should bring my can back into service.

If I read the information correctly filling station fill up when they are down to 40%? Topping up instead at, say, 60% would transfer storage from the distribution centres to the filling stations. This would add to their finance costs but, once all in the same boat, I presume no more than the current number of deliveries as tankers would visit more stations on a run delivering less than now to each.
But would it stop a fuel crisis when a rumour sparks off a rush? I suspect they would still suffer the same fate, just take a little longer to deplete their stock.

Pure scam by the government & MSM led by the BBC. I went abroad a month ago & drove all through Europe with no difficulty buying petrol. I return to find queues reminiscent of the 70s fuel crisis. The excuse being a shortage of drivers (Brexit according to Remoaners) but there are the same amount of drivers as there were a month ago before I left. Just another sensationalist Project Fear started by the media.
No doubt Johnson & his government will use this artificial crisis to push people to buy overpriced, limited range electric cars and no I couldn’t have done my 3000 miles trip in an electric car. I would have spent too much time in service stations waiting for the batteries to recharge.
As for there being a shortage of 400,000 HGV drivers across Europe I found every parking layby at night filled up with TIR drivers sleeping in their cabs & the autobans during the day are nose to tail with TIR lorries.
If the roads can’t cope I would suggest Johnson & European governments return to using the under used rail networks, that’s if they haven’t continued ripping up the lines started by Beecham.

… started by Richard Beeching.

Thomas Beecham was a chemist who made his fortune selling laxatives, and is better known today for his powdered cold remedy. His grandson was a famous conductor, perhaps best known for his outbust to a hapless female cellist. (It is quoted on the Classic FM website, but Which? has a more refined readership, so I won’t risk it here.)

During his time as chairman of British Rail, Richard Beeching was a resident of East Grinstead. It is rumoured that the railway line to Lewes was only cut as far as East Grinstead, because he wished to save his daily commute to London from the chop. Part of the line has now been restored as far a Sheffield Park by the Bluebell Railway after the removal of many tonnes of landfill waste.

Part of another branch line closure now forms the A22 bypass around East Grinstead town centre. Residents suggested it should be called “Beeching Cutting” as it is a cutting in more than one sense, but the council whimped out and called it “Beeching Way”.

Sorry for the trivia intrusion. I do agree with your point about the shortage of HGV drivers being blamed, when there are insufficient roads for them to drive on. But you can see from the above that Beeching has at least made a small contribution in another “Way”.