Hordes of shoppers ignored pleas not to panic buy and stripped supermarket shelves bare as they queued from dawn to make sure they did not miss out on fresh meat and vegetables.
Lines snaked around stores from 5am – an hour before opening time – as fears of shortages gripped the nation.
There were reports of empty shelves as early birds snapped up staples such as carrots, sprouts and parsnips along with smaller cuts of meat and turkey crowns.
The supermarket sweep was sparked by news that the French had imposed a 48 hour ban on travel from the UK in a harsh measure that includes freight.
Stores were caught off guard by the morning rush as many families brought forward their festive grocery shop to avoid shortages caused by the French decision to prevent lorries coming in from Britain.
And those trapped in the new tier system added to the mass grocery shopping spree as they also hit stores early to buy their own Christmas supplies after strict rules left them in lockdown and unable to see family as planned.
Social media sites were awash with images of shoppers queuing outside supermarkets from Aldi and Tesco to Sainsbury’s and Waitrose in cities and towns including Cardiff, Bristol, Bagshot, Surrey, Twickenham, West London, Cambridge and Alton, Hampshire.
Shocking images of shelves cleared of products from bread and lettuce to loo rolls and cleaning products were eerie reminders of the panic buying that gripped Britain during the first lockdown in March.
Sainsbury’s did little to quell fears of potential problems and said while Christmas dinner essentials were in good supply, salad and greens could run out if the French did not lift their ban after 48 hours.
A spokesperson said: “All products for the great British Christmas lunch are already in the country and we have plenty of these. We are also sourcing everything we can from the UK and looking into alternative transport for product sourced from Europe.
“If nothing changes we will start to see gaps over the coming days on lettuce, salad leaves, cauliflowers, broccoli, citrus fruit – all of which are imported from EU at this time of year. We hope UK and French governments can come to a solution that prioritises immediate passage of produce and food.”
And the Fresh Produce Consortium also hinted at fears of shortages as boss Nigel Jenney warned unless the border closure was resolved quickly, fresh fruit and vegetable supplies would be hit “sooner rather than later”.
The Food and Drink Federation also conceded that the French move could “cause serious disruption to UK Christmas fresh food supplies and exports of UK food and drink”.
And Andrew Opie, director of food and sustainability at industry body the British Retail Consortium added: “The closure of France to UK traffic, including accompanied freight poses difficulties for UK capacity to import and export key goods during the busy Christmas period.
“While goods can enter from France, few haulage firms will be willing to send trucks and drivers across to the UK without a guarantee they can return to the EU in a timely manner.
“This is a key supply route for fresh produce at this time of year – the channel crossings see 10,000 trucks passing daily during peak periods such as in the run up to Christmas.
“Retailers have stocked up on goods ahead of Christmas which should prevent immediate problems. However, any prolonged closure of the French border would be a problem as the UK enters the final weeks before the transition ends on December 31.”
Premier Boris Johnson tried to downplay the French border problem and said the delays only affected 20% of freight going to and from the Continent.
He added he had an “excellent” conversation with French President Emmanuel Macron and reckoned the problem would be sorted out quickly, even though it was the President’s 43rd birthday yesterday.
And despite calls from Number 10 that “people should shop normally,” one Twitter user posted: “The bog roll hoarders are stripping supermarket shelves bare already this morning. 8am. Long queues.”
Another tweeted an image of a rainsoaked line of shoppers outside a store in Bristol and said: “Waitrose, Henleaze 7.37am. 40 minute queue. And I only wanted some Christmas crackers!”
Experts did their best to reassure Brits there was no need to panic buy.
James Lowman, chief executive of the Association of Convenience Stores said: “Key items are not affected and we are not facing any challenges.
“We proved in the Spring that the supply chain is resilient and while demand is inconsistent and lumpy as people rearrange their Christmas plans, I am confident that they will shop sensibly and common sense will prevail.”
Richard Burnett, head of the Road Haulage Association, added: “The retailers have done a good job of stocking up on ambient products – there will be plenty of stock.’
But he added produce with a short shelf life could be a “challenge”
Shane Brennan, chief executive of the Cold Chain Federation, said: “The UK has a resilient and diverse food supply chain.
“We are operating at our peak trading period with well stocked supermarkets and supply chains full of all the products people need for Christmas.”
Supermarkets have also seen changes in shoppers’ buying habits since the Tier 4 restrictions were announced.
Insiders say people are buying less per visit, just for their immediate family, after being forced to ditch big gatherings in many areas.
A Tesco spokesperson said: “We have plenty of food for Christmas available in stores and would encourage all customers to shop as normal.
“We’ve been building our stockholding of key products ahead of the Christmas peak and are working closely with our hauliers and suppliers to continue the supply of goods into our stores.
“If the current disruption continues then there may be reduced supply on a few fresh items, such as lettuce, cauliflower and citrus fruit later this week, but we don’t expect any problems with availability on these lines today or tomorrow.
“We’re doing everything we can to limit the impact for our customers.”
The supermarket giant is looking at using ferries directfrom Spain and increasing stock from the UK to deal with the disruption.