Armed forces personnel will start delivering petrol to forecourts from today as ministers scramble to end the fuel crisis gripping Britain.
Around 200 military servicemen and women – including 100 HGV drivers – have been mobilised as part of the Ministry of Defence’s Operation Escalin to provide “temporary” support to ease pressure on stations.
Troops have been called on despite Boris Johnson announcing a three-month visa scheme that lets foreign lorry drivers work in the UK in the three months up to Christmas.
The prime minister said on Sunday that the mobilisation of soldiers was simply a “precaution” and that there were signs the crisis was “abating”.
It comes amid the spectre of empty supermarket shelves, closed garages and fears Christmas will be ruined due to the supply chain emergency.
Meanwhile, a chaotic week of petrol shortages has resulted in panic buying and some drivers hoarding petrol in water bottles alongside a fear of a price spike in fuel.
Ministers say the situation at petrol station forecourts is improving but have acknowledged that some parts of the country are worse affected than others.
The troops – who have been on standby since the start of last week – will initially be concentrated in London and the South East, where the worst shortages remain.
The Petrol Retailers Association (PRA) has said there is a notable improvement overall around the country but that the deployment of the military will only have a limited impact.
PRA chairman Brian Madderson said while the crisis was “virtually over” in Scotland, the North and the Midlands, more than one-in-five filling stations in London and the South East were out of fuel.
He backed the help from military drivers and the extension of the HGV visa cut-off to March next year, to help ease the crisis.
Mr Johnson, attending the opening day of the Tory Party conference in Manchester on Sunday, repeatedly refused to rule out shortages in the wider economy in the run up to Christmas.
Cpl Danny Houghton)
The PM acknowledged the country was going through a “period of adjustment” following Brexit, which has cut off the supply of labour from the EU, but insisted he was not prepared to pull “the big lever marked uncontrolled immigration” to let in more foreign workers.
A spokesperson for the government said: “We are working closely with industry to help increase fuel stocks and there are signs of improvement in average forecourt stocks across the UK with demand continuing to stabilise.
“Stocks in London and the South of England have been recovering at slightly slower rates than other parts of the UK, so we have begun deploying military personnel to boost supply in these areas.
“More than half of those who have completed training to make fuel deliveries are being deployed to terminals serving London and the South-East of England, demonstrating that the sector is allocating drivers to areas most affected in this first phase from Monday.”