British troops are expected to be deployed within days to help ease a fuel supply crisis, the government said on Wednesday, as the retail and hospitality sectors demanded that foreign workers be allowed to fill vacancies after Brexit.
The weeklong crisis sparked panic buying and sparked violence on the forecourt, with critics blaming Britain’s exit from the European Union, the coronavirus pandemic and a lack of foresight in replacing thousands of foreign drivers leaving the country.
Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng told Sky News soldiers could deliver fuel to the courtyards “in the next few days” to reduce the long lines that have clogged gas stations.
The government’s civilian-driven reserve tanker fleet was also due to be dispatched to deliver fuel on Wednesday afternoon, he added on Twitter.
A total of 150 military drivers have been placed in “readiness”, and 150 more will be deployed “in the coming days,” a source told the British news agency Press Association.
Officials from the Kwarteng Department and the Department of Defense are reportedly working with the oil industry to determine where best to send the resources.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Tuesday sought to reassure the public that there was sufficient fuel in stock and that the situation was returning to normal.
The shortage of tanker drivers last week has raised fears that pumps will run dry, sparking panic buying and some desperate motorists filling plastic bottles with fuel.
Frustrations even turned to threats and violence in some squares, while frontline health care and public sector staff pleaded for priority access to work.
The government campaigned for an end to free movement across Europe during Brexit, promising to “take back control” of what it saw as unchecked immigration.
But last weekend he reversed entry rules to offer foreign truckers a three-month visa waiver, hoping to alleviate a greater driver shortage that has hit supply chains.
Some supermarkets have had empty shelves for several weeks and fears are growing about the effect on the coming Christmas period.
Gordon Balmer, executive director of the Petrol Retailers Association, said only 27% of its members were still out of fuel, up from 37% on Tuesday.
The PRA represents independent courts which represent 65% of Britain’s total 8,380.
“We expect the easing to continue over the next 24 hours,” he added as the courts reported taking further deliveries.
Despite assurances, concerns remain about a return to normal which could take weeks.
Steve McNamara, general secretary of the Licensed Taxi Driver Association, said up to 30% of London Black Cab self-employed drivers were unable to get fuel on Tuesday.
The end of free movement after Brexit has also created staff shortages in pubs, bars and restaurants, as well as in department stores.
Hospitality industry and retail organizations have called on the government to grant a similar short-term visa waiver to foreign workers.
A similar call has been made in the entertainment industry.
Kate Nicholls, chief executive of UKHospitality, said workers remained “stranded abroad due to travel restrictions (Covid)”.
The government should “simplify immigration rules for now to improve and reduce the bureaucracy to bring in staff,” she told Sky News.
British retailer Next also warned of “seasonal labor shortages” compared to the shortage of truck and tanker drivers.
“For the sake of the wider UK economy, we hope the government will take a more decisive approach to the looming skills crisis in warehouses, restaurants, hotels, nursing homes and many seasonal industries.” , he added.
The Johnson government faces a growing list of Brexit-related issues, including a smoldering row with France over fishing rights, which has proven to be a key stumbling block during trade talks with Brussels.