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Paul Vallely: Panic-buying crowds are not so mad

01 October 2021

People have reasons not to trust the Government, suggests Paul Vallely


Motorists queue a Shell garage in north London, on Wednesday

Motorists queue a Shell garage in north London, on Wednesday

THERE is no shortage of fuel in this country, only a shortage of common sense among the panic-buying British public. That is what government ministers proclaimed as the nation’s petrol pumps ran dry this week. It was all because of the madness of crowds.

We have been here before. Remember the stockpiling of toilet rolls, pasta, and bottled water when the pandemic first struck? Disaster preparation is one thing, but buying up 500 cans of baked beans is quite another. Psychologists offered all manner of explanations. Dramatic events intuitively warrant a dramatic response. Quick decisions are part of our flight-or-fight instincts on how to react to danger and survive. They are a coping mechanism to overcome uncertainty and anxiety. It’s about herd mentality: if everyone else is running for the lifeboats, you are going to run, too, whether or not the ship is sinking.

A professor of social psychology was invited on to the radio this week to trot through all this kind of thing. But first the interviewer played some vox-pops from people queuing for petrol; they turned out to be a teacher and a midwife who needed to get to work, and a woman who had to visit her seriously ill mother in a far-off care home.

That wasn’t panic-buying, Professor Stephen Reicher disobligingly told the interviewer: all those people were making perfectly rational decisions. It was “provoked buying”, not “panic buying”. “If you’re told that everybody else is panicking, then it makes perfect sense for you to act likewise.”

Panic buying was about a lack of trust, he said. When government ministers said that there was plenty of petrol, and listeners had found those politicians previously unreliable, people assumed that, in fact, there was not plenty of petrol. Ministers only made this worse when they said that there were “no plans” to bring in the army, and then announced that soldiers have been put on standby to drive oil tankers. “When the Government squanders trust, it loses its best tool for having the population listen to it,” Professor Reicher said.

This is a lesson that Boris Johnson seems unwilling, or unable, to learn. Fuel shortages are nothing to do with the fact that thousands of foreign lorry drivers left the UK after Brexit, his ministers tell us. Next thing, they are offering temporary visas to foreigners and inviting them to come back to drive our lorries and pluck our Christmas turkeys. Of course, there are other reasons for the shortage of truck drivers, but to deny that Brexit is a factor is to take the public for fools.

Mr Johnson has slumped nine points in the opinion polls as his government staggers from one crisis to another — over petrol, gas prices, and carbon dioxide to keep food fresh. A lack of foresight and competence on planning, training, and storage is the common factor in every case. Meanwhile, the Labour Party, which ought to be holding the Government to account on all this, is preoccupied with internecine feuding.

Psychologists also say that panic buying is one way in which people attempt to assert some control over an impossible situation. If so, then a bit of panic just now might be an apposite response.

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