Blair's 24 hour deadline under strain

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The Independent Online

Tony Blair's declaration that fuel shortages would be "on the way back to normal" by tonight were looking increasingly forlorn as many demonstrators showed no signs of abandoning their pickets and some tanker drivers continued to refuse to take to the road.

Tony Blair's declaration that fuel shortages would be "on the way back to normal" by tonight were looking increasingly forlorn as many demonstrators showed no signs of abandoning their pickets and some tanker drivers continued to refuse to take to the road.

Scores of tanker lorries began moving out of refineries and fuel depots around the country - some of them without the agreement of protesters for the first time.

But they represented just a trickle compared to a normal day's work.

And with most deliveries destined for the emergency services - and many tanker drivers still reluctant to cross picket lines - petrol retailers said it could take weeks to get supplies back to normal.

Oil company bosses pledged to get fuel supplies flowing to vital services around the country after being summoned to Downing Street for emergency talks with the Prime Minister.

But as they did so, lorry drivers opened up a new front by targeting London and other towns and cities with go-slow convoys.

The Downing Street meeting took place as concerted efforts were made to break the pump price protesters' stranglehold on fuel supplies.

There were claims, however, that the list of 2,500 service stations designated by the Government as priorities for fuel deliveries had effectively been replaced by a list of just 300 filling stations for the use of the emergency services only.

The Department of Trade and Industry said its original list had not been scaled down but said it was inevitable that fuel would have to be directed first and foremost to essential services and users.

Emerging from the crisis talks at Downing Street, Shell chief executive Malcolm Brinder delivered a joint statement with John Manzoni his opposite number at BP.

Mr Brinder said: "At the meeting we have just had with the Prime Minister and senior members of the Cabinet we have discussed the implementation of the emergency powers the Government has taken and the way we will comply with it across designated sites which the government has selected based on their concerns to ensure the maintenance of services essential to the running of the country.

"We will be stepping this up as soon as possible to get back to normal."

Sir John Evans of the Association of Chief Police Officers, who was also at the meeting, confirmed there were allegations of intimidation towards tanker drivers, but said the situation was calm.

He said: "Generally speaking (the protest) has been good natured but today there have been incidents of bricks through windscreens on two occasions.

"There are no difficulties at all about freedom of movement and we are going to ensure that we facilitate and continue to facilitate that.

"There was good movement during the night and we hope with what we have heard from the oil men today that that will continue."

There were few signs of trouble when the tankers began moving today although two protesters were arrested after three tankers drove through a picket at an oil terminal within the port of Sunderland.

But tanker drivers refused to cross picket lines on several occasions at different sites and the flow of fuel getting out was swamped by the demand - most filling stations have now all-but run dry.

Ray Holloway, of the Petrol Retailers' Association, warned it could be three weeks before Britain was back to normal.

"In no way is one day going to make any difference," he

Meanwhile, motorists were warned to stay out of London as scores of lorries were held by police at the corner of Park Lane and Hyde Park on their way to Parliament Square to protest at high fuel prices.

Around the rest of the UK, the RAC reported traffic chaos caused by lorries and farm vehicles blocking motorway lanes on the M5 in Devon and Warwickshire and the M1 in Leicestershire.

In Tyne and Wear on the A1 northbound a "rolling roadblock" of 30 lorries was causing long delays.

In Greater Manchester a convoy of protesting taxi drivers caused widespread delays around the airport and the M56 eastbound.

On Scottish roads, a convoy of lorries and tractors in Inverness was taking part in a go slow protest on the main A9 and other routes into the town. Police said minor routes were also being affected by the traffic backlog.

The effects of the fuel crisis were being felt across the country.

Health chiefs warned services were being hit while banks moved to calm fears that some branches could run out of cash after bank workers raised concerns.

Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott furiously rejected criticism of the Government's policy on fuel tax.

Mr Prescott was on the verge of walking out on the GMTV interview as he became increasingly angry at the suggestion that VAT should be lowered with rising oil prices.

He said: "Sometimes prices go up and sometimes they go down.

"You're not suggesting we change the VAT every time.

"We cannot start negotiating each month depending on world crises."

TUC General Secretary John Monks condemned the fuel protests which he said were now threatening vital public services.

It was no use letting supplies through to ambulances if doctors, nurses and hospital staff could not get to work.

"What about factories laying off thousands, about public transport grinding to a halt, the life of a nation being strangled."

Mr Monks claimed that companies that would normally go straight to court if unions took industrial action had clearly "colluded" in lawless protest and civic disruption.

He told the TUC Congress in Glasgow: "Let me remind you of another occasion when trucks and lorries were used by the self-employed and the far right to attack democracy.

"That was in 1973 in Chile and it started a chain of events which brought down the Allende Government.

"That is why we call on Britain's trade unionists to work normally and to take no part in this bosses blockade."

Conservative Party leader William Hague also called on protesters campaigning against high fuel duty to end their blockades of oil refineries and allow the country to get back to normal.

He said that they should instead join a "tax-payer's revolt" led by the Conservatives against so-called stealth taxes introduced by the Government.

But Mr Hague said Prime Minister Tony Blair should not cut fuel duty in response to the protests - and stopped short of promising reductions in fuel taxes under a future Conservative government.

Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown said he would "listen" to people's concerns over the level of taxes on fuel.

But he insisted he would not allow public protests or fluctuations in the world oil price to determine his taxation policies.

Asked if he would take protesters' concerns on board when next considering fuel duty levels, Mr Brown said: "I am not going to make decisions based on barricades and blockades, nor am I going to make decisions based on the short-term volatility of the oil price."

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