Military personnel have begun delivering fuel to petrol stations for the first time in a bid to tackle the ongoing supply crisis caused by a shortage of heavy goods vehicle (HGV) drivers.
About 200 military personnel, half of them tanker drivers, have hit the road under Operation Escalin to deliver fuel to forecourts across the country. The troops, who have been on standby since last week, are expected to “fill in any critical vacancies and help keep the country on the move” in the lead up to Christmas.
“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,” a government spokesperson said.
“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 southeast of England, demonstrating that the sector is allocating drivers to areas most affected in this first phase from Monday."
By the end of the week, it is expected that 150 military crews will be delivering fuel across the UK.
The Petrol Retailers Association (PRA) welcomed the move and said that there had been a “marked improvement” across the nearly 5,500 independent filling stations that it represents.
However, it noted that one in five forecourts in London and the southeast remained dry as of Monday evening.
Gordon Balmer, the executive director of the PRA, said that while he was “grateful” that the government had brought in military drivers, more needed to be done to address “the needs of disproportionately affected areas”.
He said: “Today’s figures show the situation is still challenging around London and the southeast despite a marginal improvement: 62 per cent of the sites surveyed have both grades of fuel (petrol and diesel) available, 18 per cent have only one grade and 20 per cent are dry.
“Across the rest of the country, however, there has been a marked improvement since yesterday with 86 per cent of sites having both grades of fuel thanks to steady deliveries and stabilising demand – 6 per cent have only one grade and 8 per cent being dry.
“We are grateful for the support lent by the government through their provision of military drivers, although further action must be taken to address the needs of the disproportionately affected areas.”
Mr Balmer told Sky News that the ongoing shortages in the southeast were mostly due to the large population and relative scarcity of petrol stations per capita. He added that even with military assistance, it could take up to 10 days to fully restock forecourts that have been struggling to meet consumer demands.
Over the weekend, PRA chairman Brian Madderson said that the use of the military would be a “large help” in getting fuel to forecourts across the country, but noted that the move was not a panacea.
In a sign that the fuel situation across the country was improving, forecourt operator EG Group announced on Monday that it would be lifting the £30 cap on buying fuel, which was introduced 10 days ago, when panic buying first began.
An EG Group spokesperson said: “Following a significant improvement in fuel availability at our sites, with customer purchasing behaviour returning to normal levels in the majority of locations, we are pleased to confirm that we can now remove the £30 cap on buying fuel.”
The spokesperson added that the group continued to experience “some challenges” in the south and southeast, but expected that these issues would ease in the coming days with the military’s assistance.
The government’s announcement for troop deployment came after Sir Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, warned that prime minister Boris Johnson’s failure to “get a grip” of the HGV driver shortage was threatening to ruin the festive season.
On Friday, the government also announced a U-turn on its emergency visa scheme as it extended it by two months for nearly 5,000 foreign food haulage drivers. The visas were due to expire on 24 December but have now been extended until the end of February.
Mr Johnson, who is attending the Tory Party conference in Manchester, repeatedly refused to rule out shortages in the wider economy in the run up to Christmas, even as he argued that the crisis was “abating” and that the military were being deployed as a “precaution”.
The prime minister acknowledged that the country is going through a “period of adjustment” following Brexit, as it has cut off the supply of labour from the European Union.
Additional reporting from wires
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