LONDON, September 29 (Reuters) – British soldiers will start driving tankers to replenish empty pumps, as drivers again lined up for fuel after days of shortages, though Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said the situation was improving.
Britain has been in the throes of a wave of panic buying for nearly a week that has left pumps running dry in major cities, after oil companies warned they did not have enough tanker drivers to transport gasoline and diesel from refineries to service stations.
Business Minister Kwasi Kwarteng said 150 troops had been mobilized and would be driving tankers within days.
“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 courts. I think we’ll 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 there would be no problems as the busy retail season approaches, Kwarteng said, “I don’t guarantee anything. All I’m saying is 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 at 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 around two-thirds of all of Britain’s 8,380 service stations, said on Tuesday that 37% of its members’ stations were out of fuel.
The shortages have added to an air of chaos in the world’s fifth largest economy, leaving gaps on supermarket shelves. A surge in wholesale natural gas prices in Europe has also pushed energy companies into bankruptcy.
Britain left the EU’s single market earlier this year, preventing carriers from recruiting drivers into the bloc. To deal with the shortage, the government said it would issue temporary visas to 5,000 foreign drivers, a measure it had previously ruled out.
“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 Writing by Kate Holton Editing by Michael Holden and Peter Graff
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