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By Guy Faulconbridge and Michael Holden
LONDON (Reuters) -Britain ordered soldiers on Wednesday to start driving fuel tankers to replenish empty pumps, as motorists remained mired in queues after nearly a week of shortages, despite Prime Minister Boris Johnson saying the situation was improving.
Britain has been gripped by a rush of panic buying that has left pumps dry across major cities, after oil companies warned they did not have enough tanker drivers to move petrol and diesel from refineries to filling stations.
Opponents blame the crisis on government incompetence and its unyielding approach to Brexit, which has blocked hauliers from hiring drivers from the EU since Britain abandoned the common market this year. London says the disruption is partly an unforeseen result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Business minister Kwasi Kwarteng said 150 soldiers would be driving tankers within a few days, and civilians would start shipments later on Wednesday using a government reserve fleet of around 80 vehicles.
"The last few days have been difficult, we've seen large queues. But I think the situation is stabilising, we're getting petrol into the forecourts. I think we're going to see our way through this," Kwarteng said.
Johnson has sought to quell concerns, saying supplies were returning to normal while also urging people not to panic buy.
A shortage of around 100,000 drivers has sown chaos through supply chains and raised the spectre of empty shelves and price increases at Christmas.
Asked if he could guarantee that there would not be problems in the run-up to the busy retail period, Kwarteng said: "I'm not guaranteeing anything. All I'm saying is that, I think the situation is stabilising."
By the early morning rush hour there were already long queues of cars in and around London and on the busy M25 orbital motorway circling the capital. Signs were up at some sites announcing no fuel was available.
The gridlock has sparked calls for doctors, nurses and other essential workers to be given priority access to fuel, a move Johnson has resisted.
Industry groups said the worst of the shortages seemed to be in London, the southeast and other English cities. Fights have broken out as drivers jostled.
The Petrol Retailers Association (PRA), which represents independent retailers who account for about two-thirds of all the 8,380 UK filling stations, said 27% its members' stations were out of fuel down from as high as 90% two days ago.
More forecourts were reporting receiving deliveries and the situation was likely to improve further in the next 24 hours, but staff were experiencing "a high level of both verbal and physical abuse which is completely unacceptable," said Gordon Balmer, PRA Executive Director.
The shortages have left gaps on supermarket shelves and added to an air of chaos in the world's fifth-largest economy. A spike in European wholesale natural gas prices has also tipped energy companies into bankruptcy.
To tackle the shortage, the government has said it will issue temporary visas to 5,000 foreign drivers, a measure it had previously ruled out after Johnson campaigned for tougher border restrictions as part of his hard line on Brexit.
"What we want to do is make sure that we have all the preparations necessary to get through until Christmas and beyond, not just in supplying the petrol stations but all parts of our supply chain," Johnson said.
Hauliers, petrol stations and retailers say there are no quick fixes as the shortfall of drivers is so acute, and transporting fuel demands training and licensing. European drivers may also be reluctant to take up the visa offer, which only lasts until Dec. 24.
(Reporting by Guy Faulconbridge; Writing by Kate Holton; editing by Peter Graff and Mike Collett-White)