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LONDON : British government is keeping soldiers on standby to deliver fuel supplies should the situation worsen

The British government is scrambling to find drivers to deliver fuel to gas stations across the country after panic buying over the weekend left long lines of customers waiting to fill their tanks.

The Covid-19 pandemic and the UK’s departure from the European Union have resulted in a shortage of tanker drivers to ferry fuel across the country. Panic buying started last week after media reports that a handful of gas stations had to close due to dwindling supplies.

This escalated over the weekend with cars lined up outside gas stations, with many being forced to close after their supplies were emptied by worried customers.

The British government is now keeping soldiers on standby to deliver fuel supplies should the situation worsen, a spokesman said. “We don’t judge that necessary at the moment," said U.K. Environment Secretary George Eustice. Both the government and petrol companies have said there is plenty of fuel available in the U.K., it just needs to be trucked to the gas stations.

To ease pressure on hauliers, the government is temporarily relaxing visa restrictions to allow in 5,000 truck drivers from across the EU.

It has also drafted in the military to help clear a backlog of people waiting to take truck driving tests. Competition rules have been suspended to allow oil companies to share information on where there are fuel shortages and better focus their deliveries.

“We don’t have a fuel crisis, we have a fuel panic. It is not like the refineries have stopped," said Duncan Buchanan, policy director at the Road Haulage Association, a lobby group. Government officials hope that the surge in demand will soon ease once people have filled up their tanks.

The Petrol Retailers Association, which represents independent fuel retailers, said Sunday almost two-thirds of its members were out of fuel. According to the association, there are 8,300 gas stations in the U.K. Existing supplies are being given priority to highway gas stations to avoid tailbacks.

The run on petrol is the latest example arising from an acute problem facing the U.K.: not enough people willing or able to drive trucks.

After leaving the EU, the U.K. ended the right of EU citizens to automatically live and work in the country. It implemented a tough immigration system that meant lower-paid and lower-skilled workers had to meet strict criteria to enter the country. The government said this would force British businesses to train up local workers and pay them better.

But it has left a short-term shortfall of drivers. The pandemic has further exacerbated the problem by unleashing a wave of demand for workers. Many tanker drivers have switched to other professions as pay rises weren’t forthcoming, says Mr. Buchanan. A lot of would-be drivers meanwhile weren’t able to take driving tests during the pandemic.

The Road Haulage Association estimates that there is a shortage of 100,000 drivers in the U.K. It estimates that between 15,000 and 20,000 drivers are no longer operating in the country due to post-Brexit migration rule changes.

The government said it would send letters to people in the U.K. with truck driving licenses but who aren’t currently working, appealing for them to return. The Road Haulage Association says it takes 18 months to train a driver.

Details of the new visa system for foreign drivers haven’t been presented yet. The visa is due to come into force in October and last until December. Given the global demand for drivers, it is unclear whether the U.K. will be able to attract more drivers from other European nations. British government officials believe that competitive pay in the U.K. will attract drivers from abroad.

PRA chief Brian Madderson told the British Broadcasting Corp. that calling in the army wouldn’t necessarily alleviate the problem, as the truck drivers also need to be trained in filling and emptying fuel tankers.

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