PETROL sales have soared by 45 per cent as motorists queued to fill up at forecourts after the coalition government was accused of sparking “panic buying” amid concern of a strike by fuel tanker delivery drivers.
Petrol stations across Scotland yesterday saw queues forming throughout the day after ministers advised motorists to “top up” in the event of a strike taking place – even though any walkout is at least a week away.
Fuel station operators warned the government was intent on “causing a crisis”, while First Minister Alex Salmond accused Downing Street of encouraging “panic buying”, with reports of shortages in some parts of the country.
Meanwhile, firefighters condemned suggestions by Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude that motorists should fill jerry cans to create their own reserves, warning that it would “massively increase” the threat of fire and explosion.
Unite union drivers, who supply 90 per cent of UK forecourts, have voted to strike but talks are to be held with the conciliation body Acas later this week with the aim of averting a walkout.
Figures out yesterday show petrol sales rose 45 per cent on Tuesday and diesel rose 20 per cent in what appeared to be a sign of panic-buying, according to Brian Madderson of the Retail Motor Industry Federation, which represents independent forecourt operators.
“This government appears intent on creating a crisis out of a serious concern,” he said. He called for the government to show “cool heads” and stop encouraging people to stockpile fuel.
Meanwhile, fuel giant Esso warned that some sites may temporarily be out of one or two types of fuel as people rushed to fill up their tanks.
There were signs of panic buying at the petrol pumps in Aberdeen yesterday as more than 40 cars queued to fill up with fuel at one supermarket. Dozens of queuing motorists caused tailbacks while trying to get to the forecourt of Sainsbury’s Bridge of Dee branch at about 2pm.
In Glasgow, tempers flared at the Morrisons supermarket in Giffnock when some drivers began sounding their horns to encourage others to hurry up. The line of vehicles leading to the pumps snaked across the exit to the store, adding to driver frustration.
In Edinburgh, cars, vans and lorries were seen queuing along the street outside the Shell garage in Dreghorn near the city bypass yesterday afternoon, with long queues also seen on the Tesco forecourt in South Queensferry.
Mr Cameron yesterday chaired a meeting of Cobra, the body which deals with civil emergencies, where ministers were briefed on measures to minimise the possible impact of any strike, including using military drivers, the possibility of recruiting foreign tanker drivers and setting up fuel stockpiles. The impact of a strike on the emergency services, other vital services and supermarket deliveries was also discussed.
A Downing Street spokesman said last night: “Ministers agreed that motorists should continue to take sensible precautions to prepare for the impact of a possible strike.
“There is no need to queue for petrol, but in the normal course of business, motorists should consider keeping their tanks topped up. But there is no shortage of fuel at present and forecourts are being replenished.”
There are plans to put hundreds of military personnel through an eight-day training course to enable them to take the place of striking drivers.
Mr Cameron had earlier denied he was trying to “raise the temperature” in the dispute, insisting the government was delivering a “very calm, very sensible” message.
But he said there was “absolutely no justification” for a strike.
A spokesman for Mr Salmond said that the emphasis should be on negotiations.
He said: “The priority should be to get this dispute resolved to stop any disruption from happening, as opposed to some comments that have been coming out from Downing Street which appear to be encouraging panic buying.
“The Scottish Government as ever has contingency arrangements in place to deal with a range of scenarios.”
Scottish officials took part in a Cobra meeting yesterday and a Scottish minister is expected to participate in a further meeting this morning.
Mr Maude landed himself in trouble after suggesting that drivers should fill up any spare jerry cans with petrol and keep them in garages.
Matt Wrack, Fire Brigade Union general secretary, urged the minister to withdraw his comments. He said: “The general public does not properly understand the fire and explosion risk of storing fuel, even if it was done sensibly. It is already against the law to store more than ten litres of petrol in two five-litre plastic containers in the home.
“There is a real danger the public will start storing fuel in inappropriate ways if the government is encouraging panic-buying and storage. This advice is wrong and must be withdrawn.”
The AA also said it did not advocate drivers hoarding petrol at home, even in garages. Edmund King, AA president, said: “Petrol vapours can be volatile and can be a fire risk. Filling car fuel tanks from a jerry can is difficult and can lead to spillages.”
Mr Maude attacked the Unite union and its leader, Len McCluskey, for threatening industrial action, accusing the union of being “irresponsible” as well as warning that “lives were at risk” if strikes go ahead.
Workers in five of seven companies involved in the row over terms and conditions and safety standards have voted in favour of strikes, raising the threat of walkouts over the Easter weekend, when millions of families will take to the road for the first major holiday of the year.
Unite will have to give seven days’ notice of any walkouts, but talks are expected be held before the end of the week at the conciliation service Acas in an attempt to avert stoppages.
Unite’s assistant general secretary, Diana Holland, said: “Unite has said all along that we want a negotiated settlement through meaningful talks.
“Our focus is in finding a settlement that halts the race to the bottom in an increasingly fragmented industry. The minimum standards we are seeking are no different from those covering other parts of the oil industry.”
The Ministry of Defence said using military personnel was “in discussion” across government.
A spokesman said: “There is a possibility that military personnel might be required but we don’t know yet whether that will be the case.”
The dispute involves seven firms – Wincanton, DHL, BP, Hoyer, J W Suckling, Norbert Dentressangle and Turners – which supply 90 per cent of the country’s 8,706 petrol stations.
DHL and JW Suckling drivers have not voted in favour of strike action, but back action short of this. The Unite union insists the strike is not about pay, but terms and conditions. It has warned that supplies could run out within 48 hours of a strike getting under way.
Unite will have to give seven days’ notice of any walkouts. Talks are expected be held before the end of the week at the conciliation service Acas and the union has also agreed to fresh talks with the government.