Ministers under pressure to bring in emergency rationing as 999 crews struggle to get hold of fuel
Ministers are under pressure to invoke emergency powers giving 999 vehicles priority at filling stations after it emerged that ambulance drivers have been struggling to get hold of fuel.
By Gordon Rayner and Stephen Adams
9:30PM BST 30 Mar 2012
Organisations representing 999 crews warned that lives could be put at risk if the Government does not put the National Emergency Plan for Fuel into action.
The pre-arranged plan, which closes designated forecourts to all but essential vehicles, can be put in place within 24 hours, but so far ministers have refused to consider it.
The number of filling stations which had run dry at some point was said by one trade body to have run into the thousands as demand for petrol rose by 172 per cent and diesel by 77 per cent.
Up to a third of all garages are thought to have run out of one or other type of fuel and retailers said it would take two to three days to clear the backlog even if car owners stop panic buying now.
One fuel industry leader said in a leaked email to the Department of Energy that the country was in the grip of “insanity” which was “self-inflicted” following Government advice to drivers to fill up their tanks, despite a threatened strike by tanker drivers being at least 10 days away.
Francis Maude, the Cabinet Office minister who suggested earlier in the week that motorists should stockpile fuel in “jerry cans” faced calls to resign after a 46-year-old woman suffered 40 per cent burns when petrol ignited as she was pouring it into a container.
Diane Hill remained critically ill in hospital last night, but while David Cameron said his heart went out to her, Eric Pickles, the Communities Secretary, said: “Terrible thing to happen, but I don’t think it is a reasonable thing for anyone to do, to decant petrol in your kitchen or your living space.”
In an interview in today’s Daily Telegraph, Mr Pickles insisted the country was in a “stronger position” as a result of ministerial advice on fuel, which had “worked reasonably well”.
Paul Maloney, southern England regional secretary for the GMB union, which represents ambulance drivers, said there had been “widespread” problems getting hold of fuel.
“Crews are telling us that they can’t fill their tanks up fully,” he said. “They are going around low on fuel – with half-empty tanks or worse – when they should be full.
“Ambulances are having to wait in line, and are being rationed, just like everybody else. There’s no special treatment by the garages and little recognition from motorists that it’s an ambulance coming in that needs fuel for emergencies.
“The Government needs to introduce emergency measures before the weekend.
“Lives will definitely be put at risk going into the weekend, with kids also off school.”
An email from a Department of Health official to the UK Petroleum Industry Association, which was leaked to Sky News, showed the same concerns were shared by the Government.
“Ambulances are having to queue for fuel with domestic customers (particularly at Sainsbury’s petrol stations where they are also being limited to £50 of fuel)” it said.
“Would you be able to get a message out to retailers that fuel cannot be rationed for ambulances…they should be permitted to fill their tanks as a matter of priority.”
Sainsbury’s denied it was placing any limits on the amount of fuel customers could buy.
A spokesman added: “Nor is it our policy to expect emergency service vehicles to queue for fuel. Our colleagues will always do their best to support the smooth running of the emergency services and we have had no reports of any issues.”
Brian Madderson, chairman of Retail Motor Industry Petrol, which represents 5,500 of the UK’s 8,400 filling stations, said: “The Government has the power to bring in the fuel emergency plan within 24 hours, but they still haven’t discussed any form of emergency rationing with us. You would have thought it would be sensible to do so. I’m staggered they are still failing to engage with us.”
The National Emergency Plan for Fuel was drawn up in 2000 after UK oil refineries were blockaded in a protest against fuel duty. It enables the Government to use powers from the Energy Act 1976 to ration fuel to an agreed list of essential users including emergency workers and doctors.
The Unite union, which represents 2,000 tanker drivers who are threatening to strike, yesterday ruled out any industrial action over Easter after saying it wants to focus on reaching a settlement.
Talks will begin on Monday through the conciliation service Acas, but Mr Cameron said: “The most constructive thing they could do would be to call off the strike entirely. That would ease pressure in the system still further.”
Professor Stephen Glaister, director of the RAC Foundation, said Unite’s decision to hold off on strike action “should give everyone breathing space and ease the pressure at the pumps”.
But there was little sign of the panic letting up yesterday as drivers formed queues of up to half a mile at those filling stations still holding supplies.
In many areas forecourts were rationing drivers to as little as £10 each, while others imposed a minimum spend of £25 to deter those who already have tanks with plenty in reserve.
One garage in Cornwall even refused to serve anyone who was “not local” after the owner decided to turn away holidaymakers in favour of regular customers and account holders.
Ed Balls, the shadow chancellor, accused the Prime Minister of playing “schoolboy political games” by stoking up panic over fuel to try to distract attention from his troubles with Budget tax rises and the scandal over donations to the Tories.
Mr Balls said: “I do think that political games were played. I think the Prime Minister woke up on Monday morning and thought ‘I’ve got the worst weekend I’ve had in Government’.
“So suddenly, out of the blue, we had Government ministers talking up a strike which wasn’t even called – there’s no date for this strike.
“It was a political invention, the panic of the last couple of days, and the nation and some people are paying a very, very heavy price for that.”