The siege is lifted. The misery goes on

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The Independent Online

Queues of motorists over a mile long are forming this morning as, slowly but surely, tankers start restocking Britain's empty fuel stations. However, the nation was warned that it would be several days, and possibly weeks, before normality was restored.

Queues of motorists over a mile long are forming this morning as, slowly but surely, tankers start restocking Britain's empty fuel stations. However, the nation was warned that it would be several days, and possibly weeks, before normality was restored.

The bulk of the protesters who ground the country to a halt left the refineries and depots where they had set up blockades for the best part of a week, allowing a steady trickle of tankers out. Yet supermarkets were quick to stem any premature celebrations, warning that shelves in many stores could be empty of some foods by the weekend. Petrol retailers also predicted that it could be three weeks before filling stations were fully restocked.

Last night, just 300 petrol stations were back on line and no more than 20 per cent of Britain's total of 12,500 were expected to be operating by tomorrow night. The Petrol Retailers Association said that the industry faced a "massive logistical problem" in restocking.

The Independent has learnt that, in a move which underlines the Government's anger with the oil companies for recent price rises and alleged collusion with protesters, ministers are planning to force the industry to set up a watch-dog. The new regulatory body would prevent "profiteering" and excessive price rises and help ensure that in the future supplies are not disrupted by a repeat of this week's protests.

As an indication of problems that could occur, Esso, TotalElfFina and Jet announced with woeful timing at midday yesterday that they were raising the price of fuel by two and four pence a litre respectively for unleaded petrol and diesel. After angry condemnation from protesters and the Government, Esso and Jet reversed the increase while the other fuel giant last night refused to comment on whether it would follow suit.

Stephen Byers, Secretary of Trade and Industry, said that he would refer the companies to the Office of Fair Trading if any evidence emerged of anti-competitive practices. "I want to see effective competition amongst those major oil companies because only by seeing that will we get a good deal for the consumer at the pumps," he said.

Tony Blair expressed his dismay at the price increases and told the companies that he "could not understand" the reason for raising the price of oil because "world oil prices have come down in the past few days".

A Downing Street spokesman said: "The Prime Minister made clear that some very hard lessons had to be learnt to ensure that this kind of disruption of the fuel supply could not have such an immediate and damaging effect on the country. He told [oil companies] he wanted the Home Secretary to chair a team of ministers, oil company executives and the police to establish more robust systems to protect the fuel supply."

With a number of protesters still in place and with go-slows organised in several cities, the Prime Minister struck a more conciliatory tone when he held his third press conference in as many days. He said that he had been "listening" to the concerns of the public over fuel prices and that ministers would meet protesters' leaders to discuss their "genuine and sincerely held grievance".

Ministers expect the Chancellor, Gordon Brown, to announce plans to freeze or cut petrol duty when he publishes his draft Budget in November.

Mr Blair said: "I say to the country, to have acted in the way we have in refusing to concede to demands made in this way, may not have been an easy thing to do in the short-term but I have no doubt at all it was and it is the right thing."

Eighty military tankers at army bases around the country have been mobilised to provide some of the Army's own fuel for essential services and they are on standby to ship fuel from depots. Last night, Gwent was understood formally to have requested fuel from the Army's supplies for its emergency services.

Despite the resumption of deliveries, the outlook was yesterday still considered serious enough for Alan Milburn, the Secretary of State for Health, to announce that the National Health Service would remain on red alert.

A number of hospitals announced they were experiencing considerable difficulties caused by lack of supplies. Addenbroke's in Cambridge was the latest to announce it was cancelling all but the most essential operations.

Many supermarkets imposed rationing on customers as stocks started to run out and a spokeswoman for the Safeway chain, which has 480 stores across the country, said that the situation could become serious by the weekend if fuel supplies were not resumed. "Depending on what happens the situation will deteriorate rapidly," she said.

A total of 77 schools were closed yesterday and in South Wales 19,000 children missed a day of lessons after Rhondda Cynon Taff closed 18 of its 19 secondary schools. The authority predicted that the situation would get worse before it got better.

The Royal Mail said that it was reducing services to one delivery a day to conserve its fuel supplies.