LONDON – Government warnings that motorists should stock up at the pump ahead of a threatened strike by British fuel tanker drivers prompted scattered outbreaks of panic buying Thursday.
Gasoline sales have surged more than 80 percent, jerry cans are flying off the shelves, and -- in at least some places in southwest England -- lines have become so long that police ordered stations to close to ease congestion.
"I'm very, very busy," said Balaji Adusuballi, who helps run the White Mare Pool Shell station in the northern England city of Gateshead, where the line of cars stretched out into the road. "There's a queue since this morning. It's very unusual."
A drivers' association laid the blame for the sudden surge in demand on the government's reaction to a threatened strike by the Unite union, which could close thousands of gas stations. Although a strike date hasn't been set -- and there has to be a weeklong warning period -- ministers have been advising Britons that it would be sensible to make sure they had extra gasoline just in case.
Opposition politicians have accused the ruling Conservative Party of inflaming the situation after days of negative headlines over party donors and controversy over the government's deficit-reduction plans.
"They made a crude decision to play politics with petrol without regard for the consequence," Labour Party leader Ed Miliband said.
The government has said they're taking the appropriate precautions.
"If they go on strike the country will have a problem," Transport Minister Mike Penning told BBC television late Tuesday. "Let's be prepared for that in case it happens."
Britain's Automobile Association said that the official advice was to blame for the run on the pumps.
"If drivers followed normal fuel buying patterns there would be no fuel shortage whatsoever," AA president Edmund King said. "We now have self-inflicted shortages due to poor advice about topping up the tank and hoarding in jerry cans. This in turn has led to localized shortages, queues and some profiteering at the pumps."
Britain's Petrol Retailers Association said Thursday that gasoline sales were up 81 percent, with diesel sales up 43 percent. British retailer Halfords reported that sales of fuel cans had tripled.
"It is clear that there is an element of panic buying," Halfords commercial director Paul McClenaghan said. "Sales started rising dramatically after the government issued their warning."
Police in Dorset, in southwest England, have asked that gas stations close, at least temporarily, because the oversize lines were "causing danger to other road users."
Fuel strikes have the potential to cause serious political damage in Britain, where gasoline prices are already among the highest in Europe. A damaging series of fuel blockages caused a headache for Tony Blair's government back in 2000.