Boris Johnson is considering temporary measures to tackle the shortage of lorry drivers after being rocked by news stories about closed petrol forecourts and empty supermarket shelves.
Downing Street insisted on Friday night that any measures introduced would be “very strictly time-limited” amid reports UK immigration rules would be relaxed to allow more foreign drivers into the country.
No. 10 would not confirm whether any decisions had been made, but transport secretary Grant Shapps had earlier promised to “move heaven and earth” to get the situation solved.
The driving force behind the panic buying is the shortage of lorry drivers – caused by Brexit, meaning fewer Europeans are now employed in the UK, and Covid – and not an actual shortage of fuel or goods.
But government ministers have struggled to get the message across, with one using multi exclamation marks to say: “There is no fuel shortage!!!”
A Downing Street spokesperson said: “We have ample fuel stocks in this country and the public should be reassured there are no shortages.
“But like countries around the world we are suffering from a temporary Covid-related shortage of drivers needed to move supplies around the country.
“We’re looking at temporary measures to avoid any immediate problems, but any measures we introduce will be very strictly time-limited.
“We are moving to a high-wage, high-skilled economy and businesses will need to adapt with more investment in recruitment and training to provide long-term resilience.”
The Financial Times reported that the prime minister had become frustrated with negative headlines over the situation, and had given ministers the go-ahead to temporarily lift visa restrictions for foreign drivers.
The transport secretary earlier tried to dissuade drivers from panic buying petrol, although there have been chaotic scenes at petrol stations across the country.
Shapps said on Friday that motorists should “carry on as normal”.
“The advice would be to carry on as normal, and that is what BP is saying as well,” he told Sky News.
On Friday morning, queues started to form outside some filling stations in the UK.
It comes as the CBI called for ministers to establish a task force on the same level as the Cobra emergency committee to deal with supply issues which have been petrol forecourts close and empty shelves in supermarkets.
And there have been warnings that disruption to festive preparations will be “inevitable” if progress is not made to solve the shortfall of around 90,000 lorry drivers.
Esso, BP and Tesco petrol forecourts have been affected by challenges getting petrol deliveries.
BP said that around 20 of its 1,200 petrol forecourts were closed due to a lack of available fuel, with between 50 and 100 sites affected by the loss of at least one grade of fuel.
A “small number” of Tesco refilling stations have also been impacted, said Esso owner ExxonMobil, which runs the sites.
Meanwhile, around one in six adults in Britain said they were not able to buy essential food items at some point during the past two weeks due to products not being available, according to a survey by the Office for National Statistics.