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PM’s plea on panic buying designed as ploy

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PM’s plea on panic buying designed as ploy

By Jean Eaglesham, Chief Political Correspondent

Published: June 12 2008 03:00 | Last updated: June 12 2008 03:00

Gordon Brown’s “don’t panic” message to motorists was deliberately designed to achieve the opposite effect, according to government insiders.

Ministers drawing up contingency plans for a looming four-day strike by tanker drivers used reverse psychology to try to influence motorists’ behaviour.

The strike, due to start tomorrow if last-minute talks fail to resolve the drivers’ pay dispute, could seriously disrupt fuel supplies.

The government assumed that the “buy as normal” message issued by the prime minister on Tuesday would prompt those prone to panic-buying to do exactly that.

“We’d rather people started filling their tanks now, giving time for the forecourts to restock before the strike takes hold, than over the weekend,” a government insider told the FT.

The strategy appears to be having some effect. Sales of petrol were up about 10 per cent on Tuesday, compared with the previous week, according to the latest estimates from the Department for Business.

The drivers involved in the dispute, employed by the haulage companies Hoyer UK and Suckling Transport, are the sole suppliers to almost 1,000 Shell forecourts. But ministers fear the strike could affect up to half of Britain’s supplies of petrol, depending on how effective the drivers’ blockades of distribution depots prove.

Officials have drawn up estimates of the potential impact of the dispute, based on the law limiting pickets to places at or near where the striking employees work.

These calculations suggest that about 15 per cent of petrol supplies could be affected if drivers for other companies cross the picket lines. If they refuse, up to half the supplies could be hit, said the department.

Should the strike go ahead, the department said it was “inevitable” that some forecourts would run out of fuel.

The government has activated emergency measures that will allow ministers, if needed, to safeguard fuel for emergency services and facilitate the movement of supplies to areas of shortage.

Eleventh-hour talks to try to avert the dispute were held yesterday between Unite, the union representing the drivers, and Hoyer UK and Suckling Transport. The negotiations, mediated by Acas, the conciliation service, were being held at an undisclosed location.

The employers said their latest offer of a 6.8 per cent pay rise would increase drivers’ average salaries to about £39,000 a year. But Unite said the drivers’ average pay, before overtime, of £32,000 had not increased since 1992. Yesterday, the union repeated its call for Shell to stop “sitting on its hands” and intervene.

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