'You could say it's been a bit of a week'

The Fall-out
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The Independent Online

Dawn had yet to break over the Stanlow oil refinery in Cheshire yesterday when Brynle Williams announced that enough was enough.

Dawn had yet to break over the Stanlow oil refinery in Cheshire yesterday when Brynle Williams announced that enough was enough.

The farmer from north Wales, generally considered to be one of the instigators of the protests that brought much of Britain to a halt, decided it was time to go home. The protest at Stanlow was at an end - 12 hours short of a week after it began.

"I'm hoping that this will end this protest nationally," said Mr Williams, as his fellow protesters began to drive their trucks away from Gate 2 of the refinery. "I hope the Government is going to respond with honour and integrity."

Within hours, protesters at oil terminals and refineries across the country were following suit. Although a small number of protesters decided to stay put, the majority agreed they had made their point. Many appeared influenced by government claims that lives would be put at risk if the blockades continued and the NHS was "grinding to a halt".

But while there might have been widespread relief among members of a beleaguered government, it became increasingly clear yesterday that hopes of a rapid return to normality were misplaced.

Supermarkets - which were said to be "as busy as Christmas" - warned that their shelves could be empty by the weekend, and schools said they were being forced to cancel lessons. Some hospitals said they were desperately short of resources for operations.

And with the oil industry predicting that by tomorrow lunchtime only 20 per cent of petrol stations would be restocked, and that it would be three weeks before supply could match demand from the owners of Britain's 28.8 million vehicles, it was clear there was going to be no quick fix.

At the Somerfield supermarket in Canton, Cardiff, the store manager, Rob Sperduty, surveyed his fast dwindling stocks. A week ago the shelves were full, but then came the fuel crisis and panic-buying began.

"You could say it's been a bit of a week, a bit of a busy one," he said, adding that sales have been up by 20 per cent. "It's quiet now, but we have never seen so many customers, and a lot of them were new faces. We have had to enforce some rationing of bread and milk. People have been very good about it. They have understood the problems and realised we were doing our best. There's been a bit of a Dunkirk spirit."

The position has been mirrored at stores across the country. Many shops reported panic-buying and enforced rationing, and all the major supermarket chains predicted empty shelves if there was not a rapid resumption of diesel supplies for delivery trucks. Some stores have given priority to deliveries of bread, milk, baby food and fruit.

A spokeswoman for Safeway said: "Some of our stores are rationing. At their discretion they are telling customers that they can only have a certain amount of food. We have enough fuel to carry on until the weekend but then the situation will deteriorate rapidly."

In Wales, about 19,000 children were forced to stay at home yesterday after Rhondda Cynon Taff council closed 18 of the county's 19 secondary schools. In Kent, 5,000 school children had a day off and in Birmingham more than 370 children were affected by the closure of two schools. Nationwide, 77 schools were closed.

The National Health Service was also badly affected. Phil Hipkiss, a spokesman for Princess Royal, Telford and Royal Shrewsbury hospitals in Shropshire, said they had been "thrown into chaos".

"All non-elective surgery has been cancelled for the time being, pushing back waiting lists for months - leaving people needing important surgery to wait for longer," he said.

"Fresh food is at a bare minimum while gases and oxygen will run out by Monday. We are now down to emergency supplies of disposable linens."

At Addenbrooke's Hospital in Cambridge, all but emergency operations were cancelled after managers were told that supplies of equipment and drugs could not be guaranteed beyond today. A spokeswoman said: "Our NHS suppliers have told us they will supply us with drugs and equipment until Friday but that they cannot guarantee any further deliveries because they don't have the fuel," said a spokeswoman.

"There are indications that things are running out. All operations that are planned have been cancelled and there are some urgent, serious operations in that group of patients."

Public transport is also likely to be affected. The Confederation of Passenger Transport said some bus services had already been cancelled, and a spokesman predicted that services in Liverpool and Manchester could run out of fuel by tomorrow night. "Operators still can't get fuel in and if there is none by the weekend it will run out," he said.

The cost of the crisis to industry is likely to be immense. By the time normality is restored, the shortages will have cost British industry about £1bn, the London Chamber of Commerce estimates.

One Midlands firm, facing a problem likely to shared by many others, said it was poised to lay off 100 of its 120 workers. EWS, a steel processing company in Wolverhampton said it had no fuel to transport finished products.

The Federation of Small Businesses said it feared industrial relations at many businesses had been "soured" by the crisis, and the British Chambers of Commerce described the position as "desperate" for many companies.

The tourist industry was among the hardest hit with reports of cancelled hotel and coach holiday bookings.

Many of the problems are likely to linger. The Petrol Retailers Association said the oil companies faced a "massive logistical problem" in their attempt to restock the empty petrol stations.

Ray Holloway, director of the association, said garages needed an extra 400 million litres of fuel to get back to normal and tankers usually deliver just 100 million litres a day. As soon as filling stations are replenished, motorists are likely to empty them. Britain's 12,500 petrol stations have at least two tanks each, with some large garages having as many as 10 tanks, each with a capacity of 236,000 litres. Mr Holloway estimated that it would take "two or three weeks" of deliveries to get back to normal.

By last night it was estimated that 300 designated petrol stations had been supplied with fuel for essential services and at least 20 per cent of the national network would be restored within 48 hours.

Speaking on behalf of the industry as he left an emergency meeting with the Prime Minister, the Shell chairman, Malcolm Brinded, said the supply situation was easing and there should be a "considerable improvement" in the next few days.

Most of the protesters may have gone home but the effects of their action will be felt for some time to come.