THE Ministry of Defence has put the British Army on stand-by to deliver fuel to petrol stations around the UK, including Wiltshire, as the supply chain continues to suffer from acute driver shortages.

A spokesman said 150 military tanker drivers and 150 other personnel are now on “short notice” to deliver fuel if required.

Kwasi Kwarteng, the Business Secretary, said it was right for the government to take “sensible, precautionary steps”.

He added: “The UK continues to have strong supplies of fuel. However, we are aware of supply chain issues at fuel station forecourts and are taking steps to ease these as a matter of priority.

“If required, the deployment of military personnel will provide the supply chain with additional capacity as a temporary measure to help ease pressures caused by spikes in localised demand for fuel.”

In response to the panic-buying crisis, many motorists went out early on Saturday in a bid to find fuel for their vehicles .

In Trowbridge, a queue of cars built up before 7.30am at the Apple petrol station near Asda in Bythesea Road, while at the BP service station on the West Ashton Road queues stretched back to the County Way roundabout.

The pumps at many services stations across Wiltshire were emptied on Saturday and Sunday as thousands of drivers rushed to top up their tanks.

Some of the largest UK operators started to ration fuel with EG Group setting a limit of £30 per customer at nearly 400 stations, while pumps at some BP, Esso, Tesco and Shell sites were closed.

Staff at some filling stations also restricted the use of fuel cards commonly used by tradesmen and business executives because of fluctuations in pump prices.

Meanwhile, doctors and home care staff called for essential workers to be given priority for fuel.

By Tuesday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson claimed the situation was “stabilising” and things were “getting better on the forecourts”.

Mr Johnson said he sympathised with people who had been unable to get fuel but ruled out prioritising keyworkers who need to refuel for their work.

Earlier, Environment Secretary George Eustice blamed drivers for panic-buying fuel at the weekend and causing a shortage at the pumps.

Mr Eustice said there was “plenty of petrol” and urged people to buy it in the way they usually do. “The only reason we don’t have petrol in forecourts is because people are buying petrol when they don’t need it,” he said.

He said the lack of HGV drivers would have been “entirely manageable” if it were not for the reaction to media coverage about a limited number of forecourt closures.

“Things will calm down. Those who are anxious - many of them will have filled up their cars with petrol now and things will then return to normal.”

On Sunday, the Petrol Retailers Association, which represents nearly 5,500 of the UK’s 8,000 filling stations, reported that up to two-thirds of outlets had run out of fuel.

An operator at the Texaco filling station on New Road, Bradford on Avon, said they had received a delivery of 20,000 litres and by 9am on Saturday it had all gone.

“It’s just drivers panicking,” he said. “If they did not panic, we would still have supplies.”

Managers put out ‘no diesel’ signs at some service stations as the pumps ran dry, and motorists were being turned away and forced to seek alternative outlets.

Brian Madderson, chairman of the Petrol Retailers Association, said the industry had problems with a shortage of HGV drivers but it only became a “critical situation” when a submission by BP to the Cabinet was leaked, sparking widespread coverage and panic buying.

“One of our members yesterday received a tanker at midday and by late afternoon the entire tanker had disappeared into people’s cars,” he said.

Automobile Association president Edmund King described the supply problems as a “temporary blip” and said that panic buying was driving the petrol crisis and making the situation worse.

He said there was “plenty of fuel at source” but shortages at the pumps were exacerbated by “people going out and filling up when they really don’t need to."

BP said on Friday afternoon that between 50 and 100 stations were affected by the loss of at least one grade of fuel, with around 20 of its 1,200 sites closed through loss of delivery supply.

Shell said it was seeing “increased demand” at its petrol stations which, in some cases, resulted in longer queues than normal.

The company said it was adapting its delivery schedules to make sure there are sufficient supplies, while Esso said a few of its sites were affected too.

In an email to customers, Texaco said its fuel supplies are “ample” and it will keep all of its stations adequately stocked, adding there is no need for customers to “fill up more frequently than normal”.

Many of the big supermarket chains were affected, including, Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda and Morrisons, with some planning to scrap home deliveries.

While there is no shortage of fuel at oil refineries, there is a shortage of drivers to deliver it from depots to pumps on the forecourts. According to the Road Haulage Association, there are an estimated 100,000 HGV vacancies.

The haulage industry has blamed the shortfall on a post-Brexit exodus of European drivers and a lack of HGV driver training during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Pressure is mounting on the Government to give three-month visas to 5,000 foreign drivers to help fill the gap. They are currently barred from being hired by post-Brexit immigration rules.

In another move, the government suspended competition law between oil firms to make it easier for them to share fuel supply information and prioritise the areas most in need.

In addition, nearly one million letters have been sent to existing HGV drivers to encourage them to return to the industry during the current crisis.

The government also wants to train 4,000 new HGV drivers to fill the gap, using army trainers to deliver intensive three-day courses.

Mr Eustice said: “We are bringing Ministry of Defence trainers in to accelerate some of the HGV training to clear a backlog of people who want to carry out those tests.”