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Britain isn’t alone in lacking truck drivers but Brexit has made things worse because it cut off the free flow of labour from the European Union.Frank Augstein/The Associated Press

Judaka Hasan heads out from his home in Nottingham most mornings asking himself a question he never thought people in Britain would have to ponder: “Where will I find gas today?”

Mr. Hasan runs a family-owned car dealership and keeping the cars filled up has become an almost daily grind. He has spent hours trying to find an open gas station and even when he does, the lineup to the pumps sometimes stretches for blocks.

He got so frustrated this week that he created a Facebook group where people could share tips on where to buy gas in the city. “I was expecting 100 members,” he said. “Now we have almost 600 and it keeps growing. I just want all this to end.”

The same story has been playing out across Britain as frantic drivers search for places to fill up. The panic buying started a week ago when BP signalled that it would have to close a handful of outlets because of a shortage of tank-truck drivers. That led to a mad rush to the pumps, which has exacerbated the shortage and led to arguments and fisticuffs as drivers fight for every drop.

The shortage has led several local councils to cut back garbage pickups and reduce bus services. Dozens of school bus companies have dropped routes and as many as one-third of London’s taxi drivers have been forced off the road. This week the Buckinghamshire council took the extraordinary step of issuing petrol permits for students and healthcare workers to give them priority at gas stations.

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The government has been scrambling to calm things down and reassure drivers that there’s plenty of fuel. “I would just urge everyone to go about their business in the normal way and fill up when you need it,” Prime Minister Boris Johnson said this week, shortly after signing off on a plan to put the army on standby to drive tank trucks.

There were some signs on Thursday that the shortage was beginning to ease. The Petrol Retailers Association, or PRA, said 27 per cent of its 5,500 member stations were dry, down from more than 60 per cent last weekend. Nonetheless, many gas stations have put limits on how much customers can buy and some have stocked only one type of fuel.

The problem stems from a shortage of truck drivers that has been building all summer. The Road Haulers Association has estimated that Britain is short 100,000 drivers, nearly twice as many as before the pandemic.

Drivers queue for fuel at a petrol station in London on Sept. 30.Frank Augstein/The Associated Press

Britain isn’t alone in lacking truck drivers but Brexit has made things worse because it cut off the free flow of labour from the European Union. The U.K. used to rely on about 60,000 drivers from EU countries, but most headed home after the country cut its last remaining ties to the bloc earlier this year.

The government has tried to lure some back by announcing a temporary visa scheme for 5,000 EU drivers. But industry officials say that’s a short-term fix and they doubt many will take up the offer for just three months work. Transport Secretary Grant Shapps is also trying to speed up training and licensing for truck drivers. He has blamed the pandemic for creating a backlog of 54,000 licences that need processing.

Despite the calls for calm from Mr. Johnson and others, people such as Michele Laurens haven’t seen much improvement.

Ms. Laurens is a private-care worker and she uses her car daily to travel to client’s homes around Hastings, a town on Britain’s southeast coast. Earlier this week she nearly ran out gas searching for fuel. She went to four stations before finally finding one that was open, only to wait in line for hours. “It has been horrendous,” she said Thursday. “In my whole area there has been fighting and arguing, everyone is abusing each other.”

She’s running low again and spent Thursday mulling over whether to head out in the middle of the night to find a station, in the hope that the lineup will be shorter. “I’m dreading it really,” she said. “Where am I going to get petrol from? I thought it would have calmed down by now but it hasn’t. It’s just as bad.”

Brian Madderson, the chair of the PRA, acknowledged the industry is struggling to cope. “Trying to calm this down appears to be a monumental task at the moment,” he told reporters on Thursday. “The surge in demand appears to be continuing. There’s been no easing off of the pressure from drivers wanting to refuel whenever they can, wherever they can.”

Even if the gas shortage gets resolved soon, another energy crisis is building. Soaring natural gas prices have caused chaos for energy suppliers and left consumers facing massive hikes in home heating bills.

Three low-cost energy suppliers closed this week, unable to pass on the sudden spike in wholesale prices to consumers because of the country’s regulated pricing system. That brought the total number of failures to nine in September and nearly 40 this year. It has also left millions of consumers facing a sudden jump in heating costs as they move to more expensive suppliers.

And there’s little comfort from meteorologists. Most are forecasting a colder-than-average winter this year.

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