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UK mulls calling in army to help ease gas shortages at pumps

Vehicles wait to fill up at a petrol

Vehicles wait to fill up at a petrol station in Manchester, England, on Monday. Credit: AP / Jon Super

LONDON — Lines of cars formed at British gas stations for a fourth day on Monday, as the government mulled sending in the army to help ease supply disruptions triggered by a shortage of truck drivers.

As unions called for emergency workers to be given priority for fuel supplies, Petrol Retailers Association chairman Brian Madderson said training had been taking place "in the background" for military personnel to drive tankers.

The government said it had "no plans at the moment" to deploy troops, but was making preparations just in case. Government ministers met Monday to discuss the fuel squeeze.

The Petrol Retailers Association, which represents almost 5,500 independent outlets, said Sunday that about two-thirds of its members had run out of fuel, as the truck driver shortage set off rounds of gas panic-buying.

Long lines of vehicles have formed at many gas stations around Britain since Friday, causing spillover traffic jams on busy roads. Tempers have frayed as some drivers waited for hours.

The Conservative government insisted the U.K. had "ample fuel stocks," and blamed the problems on consumer behavior.

"The only reason we don’t have petrol on the forecourts is that people are buying petrol they don’t need," said Environment Secretary George Eustice.

Major fuel firms, including BP, Shell and Esso, said in a joint statement that they expected demand for gas to "return to its normal levels in the coming days."

"We would encourage people to buy fuel as they usually would," the statement said.

But critics urged the government to get fuel flowing so the shortage does not have damaging spillover effects on health care, police operations and other crucial sectors.

Dr. Chaand Nagpaul at the British Medical Association said health care workers and other essential services staff should be "given priority access to fuel so they can continue their crucial work and guarantee care to patients."

Christina McAnea, general secretary of the Unison trade union, urged the government to use emergency powers to designate gas stations for key workers.

"Ambulance crews, nurses, care workers, teaching assistants, police staff and other key workers mustn’t be left stranded or forced to queue for hours simply to get to a pump," she said.

The haulage industry says the U.K. is short as many as 100,000 truckers, due to a perfect storm of factors including the coronavirus pandemic, an aging workforce and an exodus of foreign workers following Britain’s departure from the European Union last year. Post-Brexit immigration rules mean EU citizens can no longer live and work visa-free in Britain, as they could when the U.K. was a member of the bloc.

Several other countries, including the United States and Germany, also are experiencing a shortage of truck drivers, but the problem has been especially visible in Britain, where it has contributed to empty supermarket shelves and shuttered gas pumps.

Roland McKibbin, an electrician in London, said he has had to cancel jobs because he couldn’t get gas.

"No fuel means I can’t drive, which means I can’t get to jobs with my tools," he said. "So, basically, the panic-buying idiots have lost me income and directly taken food off the table for my wife and 5-year-old son, because I can’t wire people’s houses from home."

In an effort to ease the gas crunch, the government said it was temporarily suspending competition laws so fuel firms can share information and target areas where supplies are running low.

It is also bringing in military driving examiners to help clear a backlog of new truckers awaiting tests, though Eustice said "we’ve no plans at the moment to bring in the army to actually do the driving."

"But we always have a civil contingencies section within the army on standby," he added.

And, after weeks of mounting pressure over shortages, the U.K.'s Conservative government announced Saturday that it will issue 5,000 emergency visas to foreign truck drivers to help prevent a Christmas without turkey or toys for many British families.

But that falls far short of the number needed, and critics also said the 3-month visas were too short to entice European truck drivers.

Ruby McGregor-Smith, president of the Confederation of British Industry, said the visas were "the equivalent of throwing a thimble of water on a bonfire."

Edwin Atema from the Dutch FNV union, which represents drivers across the Europe, said the visa plan was "a dead end."

"I think the EU workers we speak to will not go to the U.K. for a short-term visa to help U.K. out of the (mess) they created themselves," he told the BBC.

Olaf Scholz, leader of Germany's Social Democrats, the party that came first in the country’s election on Sunday, also linked Britain’s worker shortages to Brexit.

"The free movement of labor is part of the European Union, and we worked very hard to convince the British to not leave the Union," he said. "Now they decided different, and I hope they will manage the problems coming from that."

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