Britain will from Monday deploy military tanker drivers to deliver fuel to gas stations, many of which were still dry on Friday after a chaotic week that has seen panic-buying, fights at the pumps and drivers hoarding petrol in water bottles.
With an acute shortage of truck drivers straining supply chains to breaking point the government said on Friday 200 military tanker personnel, 100 of which are drivers, will complete their training over the weekend and start deliveries on Monday.
"While the situation is stabilising, our Armed Forces are there to fill in any critical vacancies and help keep the country on the move by supporting the industry to deliver fuel to forecourts," said defence minister Ben Wallace.
Shortages of workers in the wake of Brexit and the Covid-19 pandemic have sown disarray through some sectors of the economy, disrupting deliveries of fuel and medicines and leaving more than 100,000 pigs backed up on farms.
Retailers said more than 2,000 gas stations were dry and Reuters reporters across London and southern England said dozens of pumps were still closed.
Queues of often irate drivers snaked toward those gas stations that were still open in London.
"I am completely, completely fed up. Why is the country not ready for anything?" said Ata Uriakhil, a 47-year-old Afghanistan-born taxi driver who was first in a line of more than 40 cars outside a closed supermarket petrol station in Richmond.
"When is it going to end?," Uriakhil said. "The politicians are not capable of doing their jobs properly. The government should have been prepared for this crisis. It is just incompetence."
Uriakhil said he had lost about 20% of his normal earnings this week because he has been waiting for fuel rather than picking up customers.
The Petrol Retailers Association (PRA) said members reported on Friday that 26% of pumps were dry, 27% had just one fuel type in stock and 47% had enough petrol and diesel.
"Independents, which total 65% of the entire network, are not receiving enough deliveries of fuel compared with other sectors such as supermarkets," Gordon Balmer, executive director of the Petrol Retail Association, told Reuters.
Ministers say the world is facing a global shortage of truck drivers and that they are working to ease the crisis. They deny that the situation is a consequence of an exodus of EU workers following Britain's departure from the bloc, and have dismissed concerns the country is heading toward a winter of shortages and power cuts.
Though there are shortages of truck drivers in other countries, EU members have not seen fuel shortages.
PIG FARMS STRUGGLING
The Conservative government this week changed tack on immigrant workers, to allow some foreign workers to come in for three months to drive trucks and fill gaps in the poultry sector.
Opposition Labour Party leader Keir Starmer said the government wasn't moving fast enough.
"The Prime Minister should be taking emergency action today but yet again he's failed to grasp the seriousness of the crisis. If it needs legislation, then let's recall Parliament," he said.
In addition to the chaos around gas stations, farmers are warning that a shortage of butchers and abattoir workers could force a cull of tens of thousands of pigs.
The pig industry implored retailers to continue buying local pork and not cheaper EU products, saying businesses would go bust and livestock would be culled if producers are not given immediate support.
The weekly slaughter of pigs has dropped by 25% since August after the pandemic and Britain's post-Brexit immigration rules combined to hit a meat processing industry that was already struggling for workers.
"As a result of the labour supply issues in pork processing plants, we currently have an estimated 120,000 pigs backed up on UK pig farms that should have gone to slaughter," the National Pig Association said in a letter to retailers.
"The only option for some will be to cull pigs on farm."
The Pig Association said that despite attempts to persuade the government to ease immigration rules, it appeared to have reached an impasse.