UK fuel shortage: Soldiers to start driving tankers in coming days

Gas stations around Britain have shut down in the past days after running out of fuel

The British government's reserve tanker fleet was deployed Wednesday to help deliver gasoline to empty pumps across the U.K., and military drivers will begin operating fuel tankers in the coming days to ease the country's fuel-supply crisis, a top official said.

The comments from Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng came as the fuel industry said in a statement that the crisis, triggered by a shortage of truck drivers, was easing.

Kwarteng said the first of dozens of troops trained to operate gasoline tanker trucks will start appearing behind the wheel on roads within days.

"It takes, sometimes, a few days to get troops on the ground. We have decided to do that. I think in the next couple of days you will see some soldiers driving tankers," Kwarteng told reporters.

A man fills his car at a petrol station in London, Wednesday, Sept. 29, 2021. Prime Minister Boris Johnson sought to reassure the British public Tuesday that a fuel-supply crisis snarling the country was "stabilizing," though his government said it w (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)

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He added that the government’s reserve tanker fleet, driven by civilian drivers, will begin providing "additional logistical capacity to the fuel industry" beginning Wednesday.

Many gas stations around Britain have shut down in the past five days after running out of fuel, a situation exacerbated by panic buying among some motorists. Long lines of vehicles formed at pumps that were still open, blocking roads and causing traffic chaos. Some drivers have had to endure hourslong waits to fill up.

Gordon Balmer, executive director of the Petrol Retailers Association, which represents the majority of U.K. gas stations, said just 27% of members reported being out of fuel Wednesday.

A joint statement issued by Shell U.K., BP and other fuel companies said they were "confident that the situation will stabilize further in the coming days."

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The companies welcomed the deployment of the reserve tankers and said they were working closely with the government to maintain regular deliveries to gas stations. They reiterated that the truck driver shortage is the problem and there has "always been plenty of fuel at our refineries and terminals."

Despite the optimistic outlook, a taxi drivers' union said about a quarter of its members were not able to work Tuesday and there appeared to be few immediate signs of the situation improving.

"It has not got any better. The queues at the station — if you can find a station with any to queue up — are not getting any better," said Steve McNamara, general secretary of the Licensed Taxi Drivers Association.

The supply problems have stemmed from a shortage of as many as 100,000 truck drivers, due to a combination of factors including pandemic-related disruption to driver training, an aging workforce and an exodus of foreign workers following Britain’s departure from the European Union last year.

As well as getting help from the army, Britain's Conservative government is trying to entice former British drivers back into the industry, as well as accelerate the training of new drivers.

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It’s also offering visas to 5,000 foreign drivers to come to the U.K for three months, but critics and others like Romanian truck driver Bron Zoltan said that timeline is too short.

"I heard about the 3-month visas," he said. "If you give me a contract for 3 months, then what? What will happen to me?"