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Gas Stations In Britain Are Running Dry Due To The Post-Brexit Truck Driver Shortage

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Gas stations are closed across parts of Great Britain as the U.K. struggles with a shortage of tanker drivers. In Greater London, motorists are roaming the roads in search of open pumps. And NPR's Frank Langfitt spent the day hunting for fuel himself. We have him on the line to talk about what he found on that odyssey.

Hi, Frank.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: (Laughter) Hi, Ari.

SHAPIRO: How bad is it out there?

LANGFITT: It's really bad. You know, my fuel gauge - I didn't plan for this. I should have. But my fuel gauge was on red. So I jumped on a bike this afternoon, went riding around past six gas stations, and all of them were closed. But when I was on the bike - I'm sitting next to one of the stations right now that I normally go to.

But when I was on the bike, I just was asking motorists, where should I go? And I got a tip to head on up to a highway outside of here where there were lines, but there was gas and people were moving through. But for the most part, it's hard to find.

SHAPIRO: What did people in those lines tell you?

LANGFITT: Well, I met a guy named Gary Jones. He said the situation in the city is really bleak.

GARY JONES: Where I've come from up in London, it's a nightmare. There's nothing at all. Every station's shot. And if there is anybody - anything that's open, it's just queues all down the road everywhere.

LANGFITT: And some - you know, some were just relieved to find gas. One of the people that I was talking to was Tristan Tullman. He was pumping gas at the time. And he's an area manager for a supermarket chain.

TRISTAN TULLMAN: Seven stations I've gone to today.

LANGFITT: You went to seven stations?

TULLMAN: Yeah. I've just driven my partner to Luton Airport, and I've tried six stations before this one. As of tomorrow, if I hadn't of found this, I wouldn't be going to work because I drive for a living. I drive around different stores.

SHAPIRO: Wow. Frank, how did things get so bad?

LANGFITT: So this has been long time in the making. There's been a driver shortage for, I think, many years. And that has everything to do with sort of bad working conditions, the drivers will tell you. There have been a bunch of early retirements and also Brexit. Now, there's the Road Haulage Association. They estimate that 20,000 European drivers went home before Brexit in January, leaving a shortage.

And then last week, there was information - a leak from a government meeting that BP was kind of - maybe had two-thirds of the fuel that it has in normal times. And people began to really panic. And one woman I met also at the pump today, her name's Elle Trubridge. She works in retail. And, you know, I asked her what she thought had been the biggest factor.

ELLE TRUBRIDGE: The Brexit thing is probably first and foremost, really. It's what I believe to be the big issue behind the shortage, so...

LANGFITT: Did you vote for Brexit, if I may ask?

TRUBRIDGE: I did.

LANGFITT: How do you feel about it at the moment?

TRUBRIDGE: Yeah, it's quite painful. I also support a lot of small businesses that are also being quite penalized by it. But I think this is probably to be expected - didn't probably have enough knowledge to make an informed decision ahead of it, so a little bit regretful.

SHAPIRO: All right, Frank. Well, what's the British government doing to try to solve this problem?

LANGFITT: Well, one of the things they keep pointing out is there's actually no fuel shortage. It's just a matter of the drivers, not having enough of them. So they've decided to actually issue 5,000 new visas for foreign drivers. But that's going to take time. And the key, I think, is just getting tankers out to the stations over time, reopening the stations and getting people to calm down a bit.

SHAPIRO: How long do people expect this to last? And is it likely to have political consequences?

LANGFITT: Well, I think that the government is saying within a few days, it ought to get better. And I think they're hoping for the weekend. And in terms of political damage, I mean, right now, people around the London area are quite shocked by this. But if it passes, you know, in the next week or so, I think this will just be a blip. The big problem, though, is the government does have to address this problem because they can't afford to have it happen again.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Frank Langfitt, thanks a lot.

LANGFITT: Happy to do it, Ari.

(SOUNDBITE OF JON HOPKINS' "LOST IN THOUGHT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.