OVER THE weekend Britons queued at petrol stations for hours in a panic buying-spree that has further squeezed supply chains already under strain from Brexit and the covid-19 pandemic. Police officers were reportedly called in to marshal traffic at some sites, while some retailers imposed limits on fill-ups. On Sunday BP, which has 1,200 petrol stations in Britain, said it estimated that 30% of its network was out of main grades of fuel due to intense demand. Although the government is urging calm, Boris Johnson, the prime minister, is reportedly considering bringing in soldiers to deal with the crisis. So what has sparked Britain’s shortage?

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Grant Shapps, Britain’s transport secretary, calls it a “manufactured” problem. He blamed an industry association (which he has not identified) for leaking details about a shortage of drivers at fuel firms revealed during a private meeting, in which BP told the government it only had two-thirds of normal forecourt stock levels required for smooth operation. Reports of petrol stations struggling to meet demand encouraged more panic buying, turning what might have been a supply headache into a crisis.

The cause of the problem is not a shortage of fuel in Britain, but a lack of drivers to transport it. The number of heavy-goods vehicle (HGV) drivers in Britain has fallen by 70,000, from 305,000 to 235,000, in the past year, according to the Office for National Statistics. The Road Haulage Association (RHA), an industry body, says the shortage is now at crisis point, with 100,000 more drivers needed to meet demand. A combination of Brexit and the pandemic has exacerbated an ongoing problem. In a report this summer the RHA said extended periods of lockdown and travel restrictions led to many foreign drivers leaving the country. The shutdown of HGV driving tests throughout much of 2020 led to a drop in test slots of more than 30,000. And 20,000 HGV drivers from the European Union left Britain during the Brexit process according to the RHA’s estimate. Most have not returned.

To fill the gap, the government has announced that 5,000 foreign HGV drivers will be eligible to come to Britain on temporary visas for three months in the run-up to Christmas. It is also sending nearly a million letters to HGV-licence holders, in the hope of encouraging those who left the industry to come back, and relaxing competition rules to allow fuel firms to work together to ease shortages, for example by sharing information on their stock levels. Britain let supermarkets take similar steps last year during pandemic-induced panic buying. But industry bodies say these measures ignore the root cause of the driver shortage. HGV drivers in the country are greying: their average age is 55; less than 1% are under 25. In the next five years, a third of them may retire. Life on the road isn’t as appealing as it once might have been, and the government recently closed a loophole that allowed some freelancing drivers to set up as a limited company. Thousands of British and European drivers in effect suffered a pay cut after the reforms.

Britain, however, is not the only country lacking skilled drivers. Transport Intelligence, a research firm, found countries across mainland Europe are facing their own shortage. In 2020, Poland was short of almost 124,000 drivers and Germany of up to 60,000. (Though that has not stopped Olaf Scholz, whose Social Democrats narrowly topped the vote in Germany’s election on September 26th, from pinning Britain’s problems on Brexit and the choice to give up the free movement of labour.) The number of qualified drivers across the continent has been shrinking, just as demand for transport has risen. In the long term, better wages and working conditions could help plug the gaps. For now Mr Shapps has advised anxious Britons to “be sensible”. His plea may do little to stop the panic at the pumps.

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