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27th Sep 2021

How Britain learned absolutely nothing from panic-buying bog roll and pasta

Charlie Herbert

Panic-buying of fuel shows we learnt nothing from the pandemic

A year and a half after toilet roll became a precious commodity, Brits are showing their true colours once more…

As the queues formed on Friday, a snowball was set in motion. More people queued, more people saw and heard about queues and more people panicked. The panic-buying wheel was in motion.

And no matter how bad we thought the world got last year when Covid-19 entered our lives, the current fuel shortages seems to have trumped it in the dystopian stakes.

For example, we didn’t see people bagging up petrol during lockdown…

Or fighting on forecourts…

Now the inevitable has happened and there is a much more serious petrol shortage than was being warned about last week. But that’s the thing with telling people not to panic buy – it makes them panic.

So how did we get here? This isn’t the first time that Brits have rushed to get their hands on a particular commodity in the fear of it running out, and clearly, we’ve learned nothing from the pandemic.

Toilet roll panic

In March 2020, right at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, it was toilet roll and pasta that disappeared from the supermarket shelves, as people prepared for lockdown. Across the world, shelves were ransacked.

Presumably, people forgot that supermarkets would be staying open anyway and that the country wasn’t entering some sort of nuclear holocaust requiring us all to stay in underground bunkers for three months.

There were similar scenes six months later as the country prepared for another lockdown amid the second wave of infections.

Petrol pandemonium

It’s clear that we’ve learned nothing from the pandemic though.

The panic is often what causes the shortages, just like it did when shelves were empty last year, and this has been demonstrated yet again over the last few days.

On Saturday the head of the AA said it was panic-buying that was driving the fuel shortage at petrol stations across the land, more than the initial supply chain issues.

Edmund King, the president of the Automobile Association told BBC Breakfast that the lorry driver shortage and supply chain issues had only been a “localised problem” but were exacerbated by “people going out and filling up when they don’t really need to.”

He added: “If you think about it, 30m cars out there, if they’ve all got half a tank [and] if they all rush out to fill up the rest of the tank and the tank is about 60 litres, that will put a strain on the system.”

And just in case you weren’t sure if panic-buying was a real thing, just ask this woman.

The psychology behind panic-buying

But panic-buying isn’t a British phenomenon – it’s simply human nature.

Psychologist Linda Blair told the Telegraph that the reaction is “totally understandable, though not logical.”

“The impulse [to stockpile] really runs deep because ever since we lived in caves, whenever we saw an abundance but feared a deficit, in other words usually in autumn, we overstocked and overate, and only the people who did that survived,” she explained this time last year.

“So that reaction is totally understandable, though not logical.”

It doesn’t make it right though.

As a result of the rush on petrol, up to 90% of stations are now running dry and plans are in place for the army to be drafted in to ease the crisis by helping move supplies to forecourts that have run dry.

The solution

So what are the government doing to solve all this?

Well, the panic-buying will end, and probably quite quickly. King said that the current trend should be quite short-term because “once people have filled up, they won’t travel more than they normally travel.” He said that he expects the current strain on the system to “ease up in the next few days.”

But the supply chain issues, which sparked the recent chaos, will remain.

Because of this, the government is offering 5,000 temporary visas to HGV drivers from the EU, in the hope of a short-term fix to help see the country through to Christmas.

There are just two problems to this. The first is that it is thought the UK haulage industry is facing a shortage of about 100,000 drivers – 20 times more than the number of temporary visas being offered to European drivers.

The second problem is more significant though – why would drivers want to come to work in the UK? We famously decided to leave the European Union, and as one driver’s union put it, why should they “help the UK out of the sh*t they created themselves.”

It’s not just the haulage industry facing staff shortages either. Around 5,500 temporary visas are being offered to food processing workers in a desperate effort to make sure Brits get their Christmas turkey this winter.

It would be a real shame if we’d left the world’s largest single market recently and made it more difficult for people to come and work in the UK wouldn’t it.

And the reward for anyone who accepts one of these visas? They will only be valid until December 24. Which of course isn’t a significant day at all and is famous for being very quiet…

Last year it was Covid that got in the way of Christmas. This year, it looks like the overbearing mass of Brexit and government ineptitude could be the issue. And if we continue to resort to panic-buying as the solution to a crisis, the problems will only get worse.

Related links:

The UK government has ‘just 10 days to save Christmas’

Up to 90% of petrol stations have run dry

BBC reporter covering petrol shortage called Phil McCann