Petrol farce turns to tragedy

Minister urged to resign as woman is badly burnt in jerry can accident. Industry chief blames ‘self-inflicted insanity’ as panic-buying continues

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Indy Politics

A senior cabinet minister who urged drivers to stock fuel in jerry cans faced calls to resign last night after a mother of two children set herself alight as she decanted petrol in her kitchen.

Diane Hill, 46, suffered 40 per cent burns when she apparently tried to pour petrol from a can into a jug to refuel her daughter's car. Ms Hill's gas cooker was on at the time and the petrol caught fire.

David Cameron described the incident as "desperately sad" but Labour rounded on Francis Maude, the Cabinet Office minister, and suggested that his advice for motorists to keep a stock of fuel in jerry cans – in breach of fire guidelines – may have inadvertently led to the accident.

The mass panic-buying of petrol instigated by the Government went on yesterday – despite no strike having been called by tanker drivers. People were paying a "very, very heavy price" for ministers' "political intervention", the shadow Chancellor, Ed Balls, claimed.

"I do think that political games were played. I think the Prime Minister woke up on Monday morning and thought, 'I've got the worst weekend I've had in government, [so] why don't I try to divert attention?'

"So suddenly, out of the blue, we had government ministers talking up a strike which wasn't even called.

"When he should have been responsible, he decided to wind this up. He sent out his cabinet minister to say, 'Fill up your jerry cans'. "It was a political invention, the panic of the last couple of days, and the nation and some people are paying a very, very heavy price for that."

Last night the Department of Health had to address fears that ambulances were running short of fuel. It said in a statement that ambulances had "well-stocked alternative fuel supplies and there is no problem with ambulances getting fuel". The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) urged ministers to make a public safety announcement on the dangers of petrol in the home.

Labour MP John Mann went further and called for Mr Maude to quit.

"This is precisely what the fire brigade warned against and [it] is a direct result of Francis Maude's rash and foolish reaction," Mr Mann said. "[He] should now be considering the consequences of his actions and do the decent thing and resign."

The Cabinet Office and No 10 ruled out Mr Maude's resignation but a Downing Street official privately admitted its message on the shortage threat got "out of control".

"The message we were trying to get across was that people ought to take sensible precautions," the official said. "We wanted them to be aware of the strike but not be panicked.

"That got confused with the political messaging about the irresponsibility of Unite.

"Things got out of control and it became a feeding frenzy."

Mr Cameron yesterday chaired his second Cobra crisis meeting in three days, also attended by Mr Maude.

In a leaked letter to the Department of Energy, the UK Petroleum Industry Association described the fuel rush as "self-inflicted insanity".

It also emerged that EU rules limiting the number of hours that fuel hauliers can work has been extended from nine to 11 hours in an attempt to restock besieged petrol stations.

The new rules will apply until Thursday and were introduced after requests from the fuel supply industry.

After the meeting, Mr Cameron said that he welcomed the announcement by Unite not to call strikes of petrol tanker drivers before Easter.

He urged Unite to engage constructively in talks at conciliation service Acas on Monday and withdraw the threat of action. "The most constructive thing they could do would be to call off the strike entirely," he said.

"That would ease pressure in the system further. The Government will continue with its contingency plans. It is absolutely vital we take the necessary steps to keep the country safe in case there is a strike.

"I can tell people the fuel companies are working flat out to resupply petrol stations. It is frustrating, I know, when petrol stations have queues.

"Everything that can be done is being done, but it will take some time."

Asked about Ms Hill's accident in York, he said: "This was absolutely a desperate incident and a terrible thing that has happened to this woman. My heart goes out to her and her family."

FBU leader Matt Wrack said: "What this incident shows are the dangers of handling petrol, especially in the home.

"It is highly flammable, highly explosive, easily ignited and toxic and that message needs to be sent out loud and clear.

"The public do not understand the extreme dangers posed by petrol ... it is critical at this time when we are entering a period when kids are off school."