Fights, threats and insults: Norfolk garages on their ordeal at the pumps
- Credit: Denise Bradley/Simon Parkin
Fights on the forecourt, threats from irate drivers and mile-long queues were not what garage owners expected to be facing this time last week.
Michael Howard, manager at Harvest Energy on North Walsham Road in Sprowston, said: “I’ve been in the business for 30-odd years and I’ve seen this sort of thing before but never as bad as this. This has been a complete new level quite frankly.”
The rush to panic buy fuel over problems with deliveries blamed shortage of HGV drivers has left frustrated drivers struggling to fill up and garage staff in the firing line.
Mr Howard closed on Saturday afternoon to all but NHS workers after the queues of waiting motorists stretched off the forecourt and began blocking neighbouring roads.
“That’s when I had to pull the plug because it was getting dangerous,” he said. “It was getting to the point where people who live around there couldn’t get out of their driveways. It was total insanity really.”
Queuing had already led to heated arguments breaking out as the panic buying reached fever pitch on Friday.
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“It was extremely volatile to be honest,” said Mr Howard. “If everyone were just sensible they’d be no problem but as soon as people say don’t panic buy that is exactly what people will do. Where there wasn’t a shortage there now is.”
A tanker delivery to the Shell station in Taverham spawned a half-mile queue on Wednesday lunchtime. Down the road at the Applegreen petrol station in Drayton, where no fuel signs were still in place, the manager, who preferred not to be named, said: “The phone hasn’t stopped ringing with people wanting to know whether we have got fuel and when we are getting deliveries.
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“Customers have mainly been understanding just the odd one that has not been, but we’ve not had any fights on the forecourt.”
She said driver shortages affecting fuel deliveries wasn't new but panic at the pumps had been sparked after the issue gained a higher profile in the media.
Dina Michael, manager of the Jet filling station on Thunder Lane in Thorpe St Andrew, said he had been confronted by a long line of cars when he opened at 6am on Monday.
“I have never seen anything like it before. People were already queuing along both sides of the road,” he said.
“The mistake I made was telling customers that we had a delivery and the word spread so as soon as I opened people were waiting for the tanker. It was a 17 hours shift. I couldn’t go home.”
To try to satisfy as many customers as possible he began limiting purchases. “There were some unhappy customers, people who were not happy with the £30 maximum and no jerry cans. But if I didn’t come up with that idea I wouldn’t have been able to serve a lot of people.
“Within an hour I would have been done and dusted, sold out.”
Since Tuesday he has only been selling to NHS and emergency key workers after saving 1,000 litres but it has not stopped arguments and even a fight from breaking out.
“People were banging on the windows and kicking the shutters and abusing me, but I just told myself don’t take it to heart.
“I’ve never experienced anything like it. It has been madness.
“I’m trying to help. I could have easily put a sign up saying no more fuel but I want to help emergency services.”
The Petrol Retailers Association (PRA) said filling station staff are being subjected to "unacceptable" levels of abuse, despite a continued easing of pressure on the forecourts.
"There are encouraging signs that the crisis at the pumps is easing, with forecourts reporting that they are taking further deliveries of fuel," said executive director Gordon Balmer.
"However, we are extremely disappointed to hear many forecourt staff are experiencing a high level of both verbal and physical abuse, which is completely unacceptable."
Dave Clark, of Elvins Poringland Garage, said on Friday and Saturday morning they had been selling a day's normal supply every hour.
“This week we’ve not been opening permanently; we have opened an hour at a time and assessed the situation. Every time we opened we sold a day’s stock,” he said.
The garage now has a sign saying it’s serving regulars only. “We are serving people we know and limiting it to £30 unless we know it is needed.
“People are simply stockpiling. We’ve had people trying to fill up jerry cans. They asked but they didn’t get it.
“The majority of our customers have been as good as gold though. There have been a few that aren’t really our regulars that have kicked off.
“One person turned up with three quarters of a tank and a jerry van but when I said no they weren’t happy.”
Mr Clark said the panic-buying brought back memories of previous shortages including the fuel protests of 1999.
“I think there is going to be a leveling out point where everyone who has stockpiled will not be able to put anymore in their vehicles. We will start to get back to normal but because we all know there is no shortage,” he added.