The UK oil crisis is just a taste of a more nervous, uncertain future | Gaby Hinsliff

ÖOn Saturday, a friend who spends most weekends wandering half the country to check on her increasingly frail parents spent an anxious morning searching empty garages for gasoline. She couldn’t have been alone.

The rigors of stocking up on a weekend are starting to show: some teachers can’t refuel to get to school, nurses have to haul elevators to hospitals, and caregivers who rely on their cars to reach vulnerable people in remote areas have Trouble. And then there are the purely human dilemmas. Imagine you’re heavily pregnant, you’ve packed everything for the maternity ward and the tank light is flashing.

The longer this lasts – and emergency measures such as calling up army reservists do not have an effect overnight – the more gaps can arise in matters that are taken for granted. Appointments are canceled, deliveries are delayed, services suddenly become unavailable. We have begun to change from a “just-in-time” society that walks carefree through life, assuming that things will always be there, to a “just in case” society where we nervously wonder what we might run out of next. (It’s likely going to be something most of us haven’t even realized, much like the carbon shortage that rocked ministers this month.)

The legacy of the Covid shutdowns, followed by a rapid growth spurt, is a global burden on raw materials and every step of the production and supply chains – which was compounded in this country by a pointless hard Brexit. Fuel is still plentiful in refineries, but the resulting lack of tanker drivers to bring it to the UK forecourt was enough to spark a run on the pumps.

Furthermore, the very idea of ​​a lack of something puts people in what is known as a scarcity mentality, a nervous and selfish state in which our own survival comes first and each rush probably only makes the next more likely. People caught in the major toilet paper drought in 2020 may have chosen not to get caught again when queues formed at the gas pump. The initially reluctant drivers did the right thing, but will kick themselves if things are not cleared up by the end of this week.

Forecourts ultimately dry up not because a few idiots manically fill canisters, but because millions of people make the same individually logical, but collectively chaos-causing decision that it is better to play it safe: refuel when it’s half empty tank left , in anticipation of a long journey in a few days, instead of drinking the last few liters; or buy toilet rolls on a week you normally wouldn’t bother with them.

Relatively small, fear-free adjustments to individual life can have a terrifying impact if we suddenly make them all at once – in an economy that (not inappropriately before Brexit and Covid) calibrates for maximum efficiency rather than resilience to a series of rolling shocks and in a political climate in which there is little confidence in the assurances of politicians.

The first step in breaking this feedback loop is clear, honest, and trustworthy leadership – which means it would arguably be easier to resolve if Boris Johnson hadn’t spent the past few years offering the opposite. If not, emergency planners and psychologists agree that if you don’t want to panic buying, then the word “panic” shouldn’t be used – it just makes people think that there is something to panic about . And don’t talk about bottlenecks that immediately trigger the fear of scarcity. Instead, ministers should say that there will be enough if everyone only takes what they really need.

Encouraging prosocial behavior – for example, high-level NHS staff to talk about nurses struggling to find work – could help, as well as specific information about when things could get back to normal and prioritizing key workers .

The fact is, however, that after a year and a half of disorientation in the shadow of a pandemic, we now seem to be entering a new era of uncertainty and unpredictability. Over time, this may not help but leave a mark.

Optimists on the left will hope the net result will be showing this government for what it is, even if the pandemic pathway did little to affect Tory poll results. But the darker among them will find that past insecurity has spawned intolerance and a determination to take care of oneself, which is why recessions usually push voters to the right.

All we really know for sure is that the legacy of a nervous, fearful winter likely won’t have melted by spring.

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