David Cameron accused of presiding over 'shambles' on fuel as panic buying gets worse
David Cameron has been accused of presiding over a “shambles” as petrol stations throughout the country ran out of fuel after government attempts to allay panic buying backfired..
29 March, 2012
Ministers had said drivers should not rush to the pumps but should take the “sensible” measure of keeping their tanks two thirds full.
Despite there being no possibility of a strike by tanker drivers for at least 11 days, motorists formed queues up to half a mile long at filling stations.
In Dorset, police were forced to step in and ask seven forecourts to close temporarily because of fears for road safety.
Elsewhere pumps ran dry, fuel was rationed and tempers frayed as drivers waited for up to an hour to fill up, buying 81 per cent more petrol and 43 per cent more diesel than on an average day.
Police forces, motoring organisations and petrol retailers lined up to criticise the advice from ministers, which caused “self-inflicted” shortages in some areas.
Opposition MPs accused the Government of playing politics with the fuel dispute by ramping up the fear of shortages to turn the public against the Unite union, whose members are threatening to walk out.
The day began with an embarrassing rebuke for Francis Maude, the Cabinet Office minister, from one of his own ministerial colleagues following his incendiary suggestion on Wednesday that drivers should stockpile fuel in “jerry cans”, which fire chiefs warned was both dangerous and illegal.
Mike Penning, the transport minister and a former fireman, was scrambled to television and radio studios to tell motorists to ignore Mr Maude’s “mistaken” advice, which followed vague government suggestions that drivers should make their own “contingency plans”.
But instead of reassuring people worried about a possible strike, Mr Penning made matters worse by saying: “If [the strike] does go ahead, it will be a much better prepared situation if petrol tanks are topped up.”
Ed Davey, the Energy Secretary, went further, warning that a tanker strike “could really disrupt the lives of millions of people”. He said: “The figures I’ve been given are that on a normal day … the average tank is a third full
“I think if we can increase the average to maybe two thirds … I think people should be topping up when their tanks go below, say, half-full, that sort of figure.”
He said that following his advice would “give the whole country more resilience against this completely wrong strike”.
In the Tory heartland of Dorset, police asked seven filling stations in Christchurch, Bournemouth and Weymouth to close for part of the day.
Chief Insp Nick Maton said “traffic chaos” caused by huge queues snaking from forecourts had left the force with no choice but to ask the garages to close until the cars had gone.
Elsewhere in the country queues of up to half a mile long were reported at filling stations, with widespread shortages in Hampshire, Yorkshire, Cambridgeshire and Cheshire.
In Hampshire, local authorities asked the Government to invoke crisis laws that would give them the power to reserve fuel supplies for the emergency services. The request was declined.
In Milton, near Cambridge, motorists queued for more than an hour to fill up at a Tesco station just off the busy A14.
“It’s a joke, some people are only putting in £5 worth of petrol to top up and that’s what’s causing all the queues,” said Alex Gribly, 47, a driver from Cambridge. With the conciliation service Acas announcing that talks with Unite members would begin on Monday, the possibility of a strike by tanker drivers over the Easter weekend appeared unlikely, as the union would have to give seven days’ notice of industrial action if the talks broke down.
Ed Miliband, the Labour leader, said Mr Cameron was “presiding over a shambles”. He said: “In a delicate situation which demanded statesmanship, the Government showed partisanship.
“They made a crude decision to play politics with petrol without regard for the consequence.”
George Osborne, the Chancellor, defended the warnings, insisting: “The Government has a responsibility to everyone in this country to take sensible contingency plans.” According to some estimates, if every driver filled their tank, the country could survive for up to two weeks without any supplies at the pumps.
Petrol retailers reacted with alarm to a second day of panic-buying at the pumps.
They pointed out that fuel supplies were at normal levels because there was no strike, and they said motorists should not change their buying habits.
But the Government’s Cobra emergency committee discussed such radical measures as deploying large plastic fuel tanks, used by the Army for depots on the battlefield, to increase the nation’s reserves, and storing millions of extra gallons at ports.
Edmund King, the president of the AA, said the fuel shortages were “self-inflicted . . . due to poor advice about topping up the tank and hoarding jerry cans”.
In George Osborne’s Tatton constituency in Cheshire, a Shell garage in Wilmslow had signs saying “Sorry, no fuel” attached to pumps.
Police said two filling stations in Hampshire had closed voluntarily because motorists had been unnecessarily rushing to purchase fuel.
A police spokesman said fears of fuel shortages would become “a self-fulfilling prophecy” unless drivers stuck to their normal buying habits.
In Ilkley, West Yorkshire, one petrol station had run dry while on the opposite side of the road, queues were forming at another.
A male driver there was asked to leave the forecourt after he snatched the pump out of the hand of a female driver
George Osbourne says the unions are 'to blame'
George Osbourne says the unions are 'to blame'