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.
Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng told Sky News soldiers could be delivering fuel supplies to forecourts “in the next couple of days”, to cut long queues that have built up outside filling stations for nearly a week.
A total of 150 military drivers have been put in a “state of readiness”, with 150 more as back-up, 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.
A shortage of tanker drivers 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 said they needed priority access to get to work.
Critics have blamed the crisis on Britain’s final departure from the European Union in January and the coronavirus pandemic, plus a lack of planning to replace thousands of foreign drivers leaving the country.
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’ –
Despite assurances the fuel supply crisis was easing, after sales of fuel spiked 500 percent last weekend, concerns have been raised 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.
UKHospitality chief executive Kate Nicholls 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 over fishing rights, which proved a key stumbling block during trade talks with Brussels.