Preparations to deal with the first national fuel strike in more than a decade moved up a gear yesterday as tanker drivers at five out of seven major firms voted in favour of industrial action.
Drivers who are members of the Unite union – who together transport fuel to 90 per cent of Britain's petrol station forecourts including those of Shell, Esso, Tesco and Sainsbury's – have approved the action due to concerns about their working conditions.
One of the companies facing the prospect of seeing its workers join the first nationwide strike since the fuel blockade of 2000, Hoyer, confirmed it had already begun training army personnel to provide emergency cover for drivers on the picket lines.
Unite pulled back from naming strike dates, raising the prospect of talks in the next few days to try to resolve the dispute and avert industrial action.
But the union which has to give seven days' notice of walkouts has not ruled out the prospect of action over the Easter weekend.
The Government has promised "robust resilience and contingency plans".
Overall, 69 per cent of drivers in the five firms – BP, Norbert Dentressangle, Turners, Wincanton and Hoyer – backed industrial action, according to Unite. A spokeswoman for the union said the ballot result was a protest calling for the firms to "establish minimum standards" through the "creation of an industry-wide bargaining forum".
"This is not about pay," said Diana Holland. "This is about ensuring that high safety and training standards are maintained, so that our communities are safe."
An official at the union added: "Contracts chop and change every three to five years, bringing with each change a fresh assault on working conditions."
Hoyer responded by saying it believed the action was being driven by "a small disaffected group of employees". A spokesman for the company said that "safety is being used as a Trojan horse by Unite's leadership in its bid to seize control of the industrial relations agenda".
Energy Secretary Ed Davey called the ballot result "disappointing", saying that a strike was "wrong and unnecessary".
"The union should be getting round the negotiating table, not planning to disrupt the lives of millions of people across Britain," he said. "Our economy is just getting back on its feet and any action that makes that harder is totally unjustified."