By Evie Purves
The army is being trained to deliver fuel to petrol stations after news of a possible strike by tanker drivers.
The army and police are now on stand by to make sure fuel deliveries do not grind to a halt, mirroring the same dire situation that hit Tony Blair’s government in 2000 which almost brought the country to a standstill.
Francis Maude, the Cabinet Office minister claimed that the country has “learnt the lessons” of the 2000 situation and the government is now “ready to act” if members of the Unite union walk out.
Unite union is balloting 2,000 of its members who work for seven major fuel companies, on industrial action after saying drivers’ terms and conditions have been under “unrelenting attacks”.
Monday the 2nd April will see the vote closing and the strike could be held next month. This could result in the Easter weekend being taken over by industrial action, causing major problems for the public.
Mr Maude advised the public on Wednesday 28th March to stock up on petrol “maybe a little bit in the garage as well in a jerrycan”. However his advice was criticised by the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) and the AA who warned that it was potentially very dangerous.
A jerrycan stores more than the legal limit for the amount that can be stored at home, holding 20 litres.
Since the minister’s advice, there has been widespread panic across the country, with motorists queuing for hours trying to fill up their cars before the possible strike.
Retail Motor Industry Federation has said that petrol sales rose by 45% on Tuesday 27th March and diesel was up 20% amid talk of this strike bringing disruption to forecourt supplies.
Police were having to barricade off some petrol stations after they became dangerously busy, as well as causing huge tailbacks resulting in major delays to other motorists.
Esso said that “some sites may temporarily be out of one or two types of fuel”.
But Shell reported “business as normal” and Tesco commented that it was experiencing “an increase in sales in some areas” but reassured customers it was working hard to meet the demand.
A van driver from Brighton has described the situation as “ridiculous” and says he has been “greatly affected, not only because of the petrol, but also because of the hold-ups because of all the traffic”.
The minister has been accused by the Labour party as “panicking people all around the country which was completely irresponsible”.
BBC Two’s Newsnight was told by the roads minister Mr Penning that: “You can’t store that amount of petrol. It was a mistake by the cabinet minister. He didn’t understand the size of a jerrycan. He has apologised since
The Cabinet Office minister has made an appeal to the employers of fuel distribution companies and the Unite union to come to an agreement to advert industrial action. But plans are already in place that could see soldiers driving tankers to avoid major disruptions to fuel supplies.
Maude has recently said: “Widespread strike action affecting fuel supply at our supermarkets, garages and airports could cause disruption across the country.” He said that: “The general public should not and must not suffer from this dispute”.
However, many are feeling the pressure, including Mr Maurice, a taxi driver in Brighton, who said that the top up tax was “unnecessary grief caused by the government”, and described it as “irresponsible”. He says: “It was hard to find garages that actually let us in”. Mr Maurice revealed he is currently spending £200 a week on diesel. However, Mr Maurice also said that despite all the panic, he did not believe a strike will happen
The chairman of the Petrol Retailers’ Association, Brian Madderson has said he does not believe the government is equipped for a strike: “We have had no word from the Department of Energy and Climate Change whatsoever.”
The result of the strike on the fuel industry will affect the emergency services as well as motorists, which would potentially cost lives. Maude has said: “we are ready to act to minimise disruption, particularly in the emergency services in the event of a strike”.
Acas, Conciliation service is trying to convene talks between Unite and seven companies involved in the dispute.
An Acas spokesman said: “We are in urgent discussions with the parties involved on an individual basis. It is normal for us to do this to establish the format for talks.”
However, a Downing Street spokesman has said there is no need for strike and insists that forecourts are being replenished; mirroring Mr David Cameron’s message that a strike of any kind would be “unjustified” and said talks will continue to avert industrial action.