In the news · Notes from West London

Panic Buying

The phrase “panic buying” has been back in the news in recent weeks.

During the first lockdown, in the spring of 2020, the phrase was used often to describe the amount of toilet roll people were buying. Supermarket shelves across the globe were emptied of the stuff. Eventually some of the shops here in the UK imposed restrictions on how many rolls people could buy at one time. For the record, we never came close to running out of that essential item, nor did we stock up any more than usual.

More recently the term “panic buying” has been used rather less aptly, to describe how much petrol car-owners are buying. We have a very simple approach to buying petrol: we fill up when the fuel gauge is somewhere between quarter-full and just before the orange warning light comes on. That lasts us a week or two, then it’s time to fill up again. These days, according to some politicians and commentators this constitutes panic buying. The implication here is that people should not be driving round with full tanks of fuel. If every one of the 30+ million vehicles on UK roads were to try and fill up in the same week, the stocks would run out quickly.

Here in London, from late September into October, petrol stations were running out of fuel much more frequently than usual. Long queues of cars formed wherever petrol and diesel were available. This influenced our choice of routes. We are used to altering our plans to avoid temporary traffic lights and other road works. For a while we also had to factor in whether queues at petrol stations would also add to our journey times. One morning, driving north up the A406 towards Hanger Lane, I could see that a large southbound stretch was blocked with cars queuing for petrol, and adjusted my return journey accordingly.

Right now things are back to normal, although petrol prices have increased week by week. There are no significant queues at the forecourts. We top up whenever the gauge is below quarter-full and before the orange warning light comes on. We call it “filling up with petrol” but maybe there are still people out there who would regard this as “panic buying”.

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