A stream of fuel - but no flood yet

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The Independent Online

Increasing numbers of oil tankers left oil refineries across the UK today, most of them seemingly destined for priority services.

Increasing numbers of oil tankers left oil refineries across the UK today, most of them seemingly destined for priority services.

The flow was still far from normal and it was unclear whether any of the fuel - heading for sites designated by the Government - would be on sale to the public.

After some overnight movement of tankers, today's earliest deliveries included a convoy of eight tankers from the Stanlow refinery in Cheshire, where the fuel protest began last Thursday.

Essex police were expecting a "steady stream" of tankers to leave terminals along the Thames estuary, where 18 had already gone overnight.

A total of 15 lorries left the Milford Haven refinery in Wales early this morning. Each had been checked by protesters and they were carrying signs saying the supplies were for emergency services and "road fuel essentials".

In Nottingham drivers cleared both exits of the Total and Texaco depots in Colwick after police served blockading protesters with orders to move their vehicles. A number of tankers began leaving from first light today but only to supply important services such as local buses.

However, the run of tankers leaving the Texaco-BP oil terminal at Sunderland was suspended after only eight tankers made it through the picket line. The police presence which had swelled to about 30 officers, then dispersed.

Chief Inspector Dave Hills said tanker drivers had consulted their management and unions and decided not to cross the picket line.

He denied there was any evidence that drivers had been intimidated.

He said: "I spoke with the drivers briefly and tried to reassure them that we would do everything in our power to ensure their safety.

"The drivers have consulted with their union and company and took the decision that they did not want to cross the line. We have had no evidence of intimidation at Sunderland, the picket here has been peaceful, well organised and legal."

And only a trickle of supplies was flowing out of the big Manchester Fuels Terminal this morning. Eight loaded tankers left the depot in Trafford Park during the night and another seven by mid-morning, most of them said to be carrying emergency supplies.

Oil company Esso complained of "significant attempts by demonstrators to intimidate drivers, through action not only outside the gates but in all aspects of the delivery operation.

"In addition, the substantial efforts to satisfy ourselves that we can deliver safely are limiting the rate at which we can build up supplies.

In a statement, the company said: "Our priority at this time is to deliver fuel to Esso service stations included in the Government's designated list of 2,500 service stations nationwide. In addition, we are seeking to increase the supply of fuel to emergency services. We cannot underestimate the difficulty in achieving this."

Tony Blair today met representatives from oil companies to keep up pressure on them. Meanwhile, Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott angrily rejected criticism of Government's policy on fuel tax. He said in a GMTV interview that tax discussions outside oil refineries was not his idea of democracy, and added: "Sometimes prices go up and sometimes they go down. You're not suggesting we change the VAT every time."

The Post Office also began planning to reduce services because of mounting problems caused by the shortage of fuel.

The organisation has already suspended one of its services guaranteeing next day delivery and said that its depots were running very low on fuel.

"If the problems surrounding fuel deliveries are not resolved soon, the Post Office will be facing significant disruption to its services," said a spokesman.

The Post Office has one of the country's biggest vehicle fleets, with 30,000 Royal Mail vans and 6,000 Parcelforce vehicles, ranging from small vans to lorries.

It could not specify when cuts might have to be made but it was only sensible to begin planning now to reduce services.

"The Post Office's ability to re-supply its own fuel stocks has been seriously impeded in recent days and our reserve of fuel is now very low.

"The Post Office is doing everything possible to maintain its services, but despite pulling out all the stops it is becoming increasingly difficult to provide the core mail and postal services."

The country's 18,500 post offices were being treated with priority so that internal deliveries of cash to pay benefits such as pensions, could continue for as long as possible.

Mail could be subject to delay and premium services have had to have guarantees suspended because of the current situation which is outside our control.