Blair tells protestors: lives are at risk

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The Independent Online

Prime Minister Tony Blair made a direct appeal to the pump price protesters tonight to lift their pickets, adding that "real damage is now being done to real people."

Prime Minister Tony Blair made a direct appeal to the pump price protesters tonight to lift their pickets, adding that "real damage is now being done to real people."

Mr Blair said: "There is a real danger now for the NHS and other essential services ... Lives are at risk".

He told reporters at a Downing Street press conference - his second in 24 hours - that fuel supplies were beginning to flow out of depots and refineries.

He said the latest figures suggested 500 tankers had moved today.

But, a day after he said he hoped the situation would be "on the way back to normal" by tonight, he admitted that there was a "considerable" way to go.

Mr Blair also admitted the country was facing a national crisis.

He said he would "not rule out" the recall of Parliament, but his immediate task was to deal with the crisis.

Minutes earlier Tory leader William Hague called for the "immediate recall of Parliament" to discuss the fuel crisis.

Mr Blair said that the Government was listening to the complaints of the protesters, but he added: "We will listen - we will not be intimidated."

And he called on the British people to say to the protesters "enough is enough". Mr Blair said that at his emergency meeting at Downing Street today he had told oil firm executives to get fuel supplies moving.

"I could not have made it any clearer. I expect these fuel supplies to be delivered and there is no reason why they should not be."

He said: "The blockades ... are now lifted. Police are providing protection in respect of what in some place have been very real and unacceptable threats and intimidation against drivers and their families.

"As today's developments show, where the determination exists, the supplies do get through.

"I reiterate my appeal however for the unlawful blockades and pickets to be lifted and the threat to the nation's fuel supply to stop." On a typical day there would be at least 3,000 tanker deliveries in Britain, a spokeswoman for the Petrol Retailers Association said.

Each tanker can carry up to 36,000 litres while each petrol station would receive a delivery every three to four days.

Mr Blair said there had been only around 500 tanker movements today.

He said the situation had improved considerably since the same time on Tuesday, when he had said supplies would be running again within 24 hours.

But he conceded that there was still a long way to go before the crisis was over.

He said: "We are a considerable distance from where we need to be, and there is still much to do because supplies have been run so low.

"The oil companies are under specific instruction to get the fuel moving. There is no reason why this should not happen.

"As today's developments show, when the determination exists, the supplies do get through."

The Prime Minister said he had some sympathy for those whose work was made more difficult by high fuel prices, and said that the Government had already taken moves earlier this year to help struggling industries like farming and road haulage.

But he added: "Whatever the protesters' feelings - and I repeat I understand the real difficulties people have over the high price of petrol - it cannot be right to try to force a change in policy by these means.

"No government, indeed no country, could retain credibility in its democratic process of its economic policy-making were it to give in to such a campaign.

"If we did give in to this protest, how long would it be before another grievance emerged, the same tactics used with another group of people?

"No one can seriously think that it would be right for a British Government to allow policy to be decided by direct action of this kind."

Governments in Germany, Holland and Belgium were facing similar protests and had also refused to comply with pickets' demands, he pointed out.

Mr Blair described as "an affront" the scenes which have seen pickets determining whether to let tankers out through depot gates on the basis of whether or not their fuel was destined for emergency services.

He said: "As a result of these blockades and this intimidation, real damage is now being done to real people.

"There is a real danger now to the NHS and other essential services. It is not just the hospitals that need fuel, but nurses, doctors and other staff and of course patients themselves.

"It is not just schools, but teachers, police, firemen - the employees on whom our public services depend.

"Lives are at risk if those people can't get to work."

The Prime Minister rejected comparisons between the present situation and the Winter of Discontent in 1978, when disputes led to food shortages and problems with many essential public services.

In comparison with the 1970s, Britain's economy was now in excellent shape, said Mr Blair.

"The UK economy is now at its strongest for some time. We have the lowest unemployment figures for over 20 years.

"On the whole, Britain's businesses are actually doing well, but certain groups - some exporters affected by the strength of sterling and some hauliers and farmers - are facing really tough, difficult times. I accept that entirely."