By Michael Holden
LONDON (Reuters) -Britain is expected to announce plans to issue temporary work visas to truck drivers to ease an acute labour shortage that has led to fuel rationing at hundreds of gas stations and long queues to fill up - with pumps running dry in some places.
As retailers https://www.reuters.com/world/uk/britain-resolve-trucker-shortage-swiftly-minister-says-2021-09-24 warned of significant disruption in the run-up to Christmas, Prime Minister Boris Johnson's office said it was looking at temporary measures to address the shortage of heavy goods vehicle (HGV) drivers.
Newspapers reported that the government would allow up to 5,000 foreign drivers into Britain on short-term visas, a measure that logistics companies and retailers have demanded for months but which the government had previously ruled out.
The UK's Road Haulage Association (RHA) says Britain needs 100,000 more drivers if it is to meet demand.
Shortages of truckers have been caused partly by Brexit and COVID-19, which put a stop to driver training and testing for about a year.
"We're looking at temporary measures to avoid any immediate problems, but any measures we introduce will be very strictly time limited," a spokeswoman for Johnson's Downing Street office said in a statement.
Downing Street declined to give further details.
Ministers have cautioned against panic buying, and oil companies say there is no shortage of supplies, merely problems delivering the fuel to gas stations.
However, there were long lines of vehicles at filling stations as motorists rushed out to fill up, and some forecourts closed as their supplies ran out.
The issue came to the fore after BP said it had to close some of its outlets due to the driver shortages, with Shell and ExxonMobil's Esso also reporting problems with supplies.
EG Group, which runs 341 forecourts across Britain, said on Friday it would impose a purchase limit of 30 pounds ($41) per customer for fuel due to the "unprecedented customer demand".
"I regret what we're seeing at the forecourt," Huw Merriman, chairman of parliament's transport committee, told BBC TV.
"I was out on my bike ... and came past my BP garage and it was chaos. As soon as the message gets out there might be a fuel shortage, people understandably react."
One police force said long queues were a potential hazard, blocking roads for emergency vehicles.
Downing Street said the country had "ample fuel stocks".
"The public should be reassured there are no shortages," the spokeswoman said. "But like countries around the world we are suffering from a temporary COVID-related shortage of drivers needed to move supplies around the country."
The fuel issue comes as Britain, the world's fifth-largest economy, also grapples with a spike in European natural gas costs causing soaring energy prices and a potential food supply crunch.
Other countries across Europe as well as the United States are also dealing with truck driver shortages, and industry figures have warned there was no guarantee that a change to the visa process would see foreign drivers coming to Britain.
"We'll have to see if we can attract people for a short period of time," Merriman said.
Britain says the long-term solution is for more British drivers to be hired, with the RHA saying better pay and conditions are needed to attract people into the industry.
But retailers have warned that unless the government acts to address the shortage in the next 10 days, then significant disruption is inevitable in the run-up to Christmas.
($1 = 0.7311 pounds)
(Reporting by Michael Holden and Guy FaulconbridgeEditing by Frances Kerry and Helen Popper)