(Bloomberg) — U.K. Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng said a fleet of reserve fuel tankers will be available on Wednesday and soldiers will be deployed within “days” to help drive trucks, as the government moved to ease the shortages that triggered chaos at gas stations.
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The government’s reserve tanker fleet will be on the road this afternoon, driven by civilians, in order to boost deliveries, Kwarteng said on Twitter. With the U.K. facing a shortage of drivers for the vehicles, using soldiers can also help plug the gap.
However, the emergency measures carry the risk of triggering further bouts of the panic-buying that ministers said have compounded the crisis. It’s also not clear how much impact they will have. Around 150 Army drivers were placed on standby, with half of them of them able to begin work this week, officials have said.
The timing of the decision also raises questions whether the situation is indeed improving, as Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government has said repeatedly in the last 24 hours. That’s backed by suppliers, with the U.K. Petrol Retailers Association saying on Tuesday that the number of stations without stock fell to about 37%, from more than 50% on Sunday.
Yet ministers have been struggling to show they have a grip on frequent ructions in the supply chain, of which the fuel shortages are just the latest example. During the pandemic, supermarket shelves have been left bare amid an estimated 100,000 shortfall of truck drivers.
Johnson’s opponents have blamed the Brexit deal he signed with the European Union for cutting the U.K. off from the bloc’s seamless labor market, a narrative the government has rejected.
By bringing in the Army, the government is trying to end the chaos and the attention on Brexit it has fostered. It is also a calculation that the dramatic image of soldiers in fuel trucks will be less damaging politically than appearing to allow the crisis to drag on.
The government has said it expects shortages to ease once the panic-buying ends, and again on Wednesday urged Britons to return to normal habits. Kwarteng told broadcasters that data from Tuesday showed delivery levels had been matched with sales.
“We are working closely with industry to help increase fuel stocks and there are now signs of stabilization in the forecourt storage,” a spokesperson for the government said. “We have ample fuel reserves and remain confident the situation will improve in coming days. The sooner we can all return to our normal buying habits, the sooner the situation will return to normal.”
(Updates with context from fourth paragraph, government comment in final)
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