London CNN Business  — 

British motorists desperate for fuel found service stations still closed and long lines at those with gasoline and diesel on Wednesday as the UK government prepared to deploy soldiers in an effort to end days of shortages.

The UK military has put 150 tanker drivers on standby to help deliver fuel to service stations, a government source told CNN Business, following a spate of panic buying by British motorists.

“I think in the next couple of days people will see some soldiers driving the tanker fleet,” UK Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng told reporters on Wednesday. “The last few days have been difficult,” he admitted. “We’ve seen large queues but I think the situation is stabilizing.”

The fuel crisis kicked off last week after BP (BP) was forced to temporarily close some of its stations for the second time in as many months because of a shortage of tanker drivers made worse by the pandemic and Brexit. Brits rushed to buy gasoline, emptying thousands of service stations.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson urged the public on Tuesday to fill their tanks “in the normal way, when you really need it.”

The Petrol Retailers Association, which represents independent fuel suppliers, said Wednesday that about 27% of the 5,450 service stations it monitors were without fuel, down from 37% on Tuesday and 66% earlier this week.

Still, motorists continue to refill their cars at a rapid clip. One Shell (RDSA) station in central London that received 10,300 liters of diesel fuel on Tuesday exhausted that supply in under 14 hours. The same station went through 20,000 liters of unleaded petrol in roughly 24 hours, or twice the normal pace, according to station workers.

There is enough fuel in the United Kingdom, but the shortage of tanker drivers is making it difficult to move gasoline to the places it’s needed. While millions of people have been inconvenienced, the shortages are also making it harder for essential workers such as nurses and taxi drivers to do their jobs.

Emergency response

The UK government has announced a series of emergency measures in recent days, including issuing temporary work visas for 5,000 foreign truck drivers and suspending competition law to allow suppliers to deliver fuel to rival operators.

There’s been a shortage of truck drivers in the United Kingdom for years but it has been exacerbated recently by the pandemic, which delayed the issue of new licenses, and Brexit, which resulted in tens of thousands of EU nationals leaving trucking jobs and other occupations in Britain.

According to the Road Haulage Association, the country is short around 100,000 truck drivers. Last month, the UK government said that “most of the solutions” to the crisis would be driven by employers offering better pay and conditions, and that it did not want to rely on workers from outside Britain.

Johnson signaled Tuesday that additional visas for foreign workers are unlikely, despite the U-turn over the weekend to relax immigration laws temporarily to allow in more drivers and 5,500 poultry workers to help process Christmas turkeys.

“What we want to see is an emphasis on high wage, high skill — a high productivity approach to our economy. What I don’t think that people in this country want to do is fix all our problems with uncontrolled immigration,” he said.

Ruby McGregor-Smith, the president of the British Chambers of Commerce, said the decision by the government to offer 5,000 temporary visas to foreign truck drivers was insufficient, comparing it to “throwing a thimble of water on a bonfire.”

“Without further action, we now face the very real prospect of serious damage to our economic recovery, stifled growth as well as another less than happy Christmas for many businesses and their customers across the country,” she said in a statement.

It’s not clear whether foreign truck drivers want jobs in the United Kingdom. The temporary visas are only good through Christmas Eve, and many drivers complain of low pay and unpleasant working conditions in the country, including a shortage of clean rest stops.

Oil companies including BP, Royal Dutch Shell and Exxon Mobil (XOM) said in a statement distributed by the government on Monday that “there is plenty of fuel at UK refineries and terminals.”

“As many cars are now holding more fuel than usual, we expect that demand will return to its normal levels in the coming days, easing pressures on fuel station forecourts. We would encourage everyone to buy fuel as they usually would,” the companies said.

–— Jo Shelley, Lauren Kent, Nada Bashir, Chris Liakos, Amy Woodyatt and Anna Cooban contributed reporting.