LONDON, Sept. 29 (Reuters) – Britain on Wednesday ordered soldiers to start driving tankers to fill empty pumps, as motorists remained stuck in queues after nearly a week of shortage, despite Prime Minister Boris Johnson saying the situation is improving.
Britain was gripped by a wave of panic buying that left pumps running dry in major cities, after oil companies warned they did not have enough tanker drivers to transport the gasoline and diesel from refineries to service stations.
Opponents attribute the crisis to the government’s incompetence and its inflexible approach to Brexit, which has prevented carriers from hiring EU drivers since Britain abandoned the common market this year. London says the disruption is in part an unintended result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Business Minister Kwasi Kwarteng said 150 troops would be driving tankers in a few days and civilians would begin shipments later Wednesday using a government reserve fleet of around 80 vehicles.
“The last few days have been difficult, we have seen big queues. But I think the situation is stabilizing, we are putting gasoline in the forecourt. I think we will be fine,” Kwarteng said. .
Johnson has sought to allay concerns, saying supplies are returning to normal while urging people not to panic to buy.
A shortage of around 100,000 drivers has wreaked havoc on supply chains and raised fears of empty shelves and price increases over Christmas.
When asked if he could guarantee that there would be no problems as the busy retail season approaches, Kwarteng said, âI don’t guarantee anything. is that I think the situation is stabilizing. “
By the early morning rush hour there were already long lines of cars in and around London and on the busy M25 orbital motorway circling the capital. Signs were installed on some sites announcing that no fuel was available.
The traffic jam sparked calls for doctors, nurses and other essential workers to have priority access to fuel, a move Johnson resisted.
Industry groups said the worst shortages appeared to be in London, the south-east and other English cities. Brawls broke out as drivers jostled each other.
The Petrol Retailers Association (PRA), which represents independent retailers who make up about two-thirds of the UK’s 8,380 service stations, said 27% of its members’ stations were out of fuel, up from 90% it two days ago.
More and more forecourt were reporting receiving deliveries and the situation was likely to improve further in the next 24 hours, but staff were experiencing “a high level of verbal and physical abuse, which is totally unacceptable,” said Gordon Balmer, Executive Director of PRA.
The shortages have left gaps on supermarket shelves and added to an air of chaos in the world’s fifth-largest economy. A surge in wholesale natural gas prices in Europe has also pushed energy companies into bankruptcy. Read more
To deal with the shortage, the government said it would issue temporary visas to 5,000 foreign drivers, a move it had previously ruled out after Johnson campaigned for tighter border restrictions as part of his hard line on Brexit.
“What we want to do is make sure that we have all the preparations necessary to hold out until Christmas and beyond, not only to supply gas stations but all parts of our supply chain,” Johnson said.
Carriers, gas stations and retailers say there is no quick fix as the shortage of drivers is so severe and transporting fuel requires training and licensing. European drivers may also be reluctant to accept the visa offer, which only lasts until December 24.
Reporting by Guy Faulconbridge; Written by Kate Holton; edited by Peter Graff and Mike Collett-White
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