Ministers were last night accused of irresponsibly triggering an artificial nationwide fuel crisis after thousands of motorists took official advice and began stockpiling petrol ahead of a threatened strike by hauliers.
Amid reports of panic buying at petrol stations yesterday, the Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude attracted fierce criticism from firemen's leaders after suggesting that motorists should fill up any spare jerry cans with fuel. Mr Maude later refused to back down, despite the Fire Brigades Union warning that the advice could have dangerous consequences and should be withdrawn.
Meanwhile, the Retail Motor Industry Federation said that some companies were struggling to resupply their garages and attacked the Government as "shockingly irresponsible" for encouraging people to stockpile when supplies are low. The Federation's chairman Brian Madderson said: "By encouraging people to panic buy it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy."
However, Government officials insisted they had acted in a sensible manner. They said motorists stocking up on fuel while supplies were still available was a way of minimising the impact of any strike action.
As the storm over the Government's handling of the potential fuel hauliers strike grew, David Cameron yesterday chaired a meeting of the Government's emergency committee Cobra to discuss the potential strikes.
Downing Street sources said afterwards that "a range of contingency plans" had been discussed. These are thought to include limiting the amount individuals can buy from petrol stations at any one time to 15 litres and designating certain garages for the sole use of emergency services.
On Monday, almost 2,000 petrol tanker drivers voted to take industrial action in a row with employers over terms and conditions. Under the law, workers must take action within 28 days and give employers seven days' notice of any strike. But yesterday both sides indicated that talks were likely to go ahead in the next few days – pushing the timetable of any possible strike into next month.
Despite the lack of an imminent threat to supplies, the Cabinet Office minister, Francis Maude, said it was sensible for motorists to take precautions. "All I'm saying is, people need to be aware that there is a risk to fuel supplies," he said. However, the FBU condemned his suggestion that drivers should consider storing spare fuel in jerry cans. "The general public does not properly understand the fire and explosion risk of storing fuel," it said.