LONDON - 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 called for foreign workers to be allowed to fill post-Brexit vacancies.
The week-long crisis has triggered panic-buying and sparked violence at forecourts as critics blame 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 that soldiers could be delivering fuel supplies to forecourts "in the next couple of days", to cut long queues that have clogged up filling stations.
The government's reserve tanker fleet, driven by civilians, was also due to be sent out to deliver fuel on Wednesday afternoon, he added on Twitter.
A total of 150 military drivers have been put in a "state of readiness", with another 150 to deploy "in the coming days", a source told Britain's domestic Press Association news agency.
Officials from Kwarteng's department and the Ministry of Defence are reportedly working with the petrol industry on where best to send resources.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Tuesday sought to reassure the public there was enough fuel in stock and the situation was returning to normal.
The shortage of tanker drivers last week sparked fears of pumps running dry, triggering panic-buying and some desperate motorists filling plastic bottles with fuel.
Frustrations even spilled over into threats and violence on some forecourts, while frontline healthcare and public sector personnel pleaded for priority access to get 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 it reversed entry rules to offer foreign truckers a three-month visa waiver, hoping to ease a wider shortage of drivers that has hit supply chains.
Some supermarkets have had empty shelves for several weeks and fears are growing about the effect on the upcoming Christmas period.
- 'Seasonal labour shortages' -
Gordon Balmer, executive director of the Petrol Retailers Association, said only 27 percent of its members were still out of fuel compared to 37 percent on Tuesday.
The PRA represents independent forecourts which make up 65 percent of Britain's 8,380 total.
"We are expecting to see the easing to continue over the next 24 hours," he added as forecourts reported taking further deliveries.
Despite the assurances, concerns linger that it could take weeks to return to normal.
Steve McNamara, general secretary of the Licensed Taxi Driver Association, said up to 30 percent of self-employed London Black Cab drivers could not get fuel on Tuesday.
The end to free movement after Brexit has also created staff shortages in pubs, bars and restaurants, as well as in high-street shops.
Industry bodies in hospitality and retailers called on the government to grant a similar short-term visa waiver to foreign workers.
A similar appeal has been made in the entertainment industry.
Kate Nicholls, chief executive of UKHospitality, said workers remained "stuck abroad because of (Covid) travel restrictions".
The government should "simplify the immigration rules at the moment to improve and reduce the bureaucracy to get staff in", she told Sky News.
British high-street retailer Next similarly warned of "seasonal labour shortages" drawing comparison to the shortfall of lorry and tanker drivers.
"For the sake of the wider UK economy, we hope that the government will take a more decisive approach to the looming skills crisis in warehouses, restaurants, hotels, care homes and many seasonal industries," it added.
Johnson's government is facing a growing list of Brexit-related woes, including a smouldering row with France about fishing rights, which proved a key stumbling block during trade talks with Brussels.