British officials in U-turn to control fuel panic

LONDON — Britain’s government has moved to stop panic buying at gas pumps, telling motorists there is no need to fill up their tanks as previously stated.

LONDON — Britain’s government has moved to stop panic buying at gas pumps, telling motorists there is no need to fill up their tanks as previously stated. The new advice caps several days of confusion, which even supporters of the ruling Conservative Party say has dented its leadership credentials.

“Even I’m starting to wonder: What do this lot know about anything?” asked Charles Moore, the former editor of Britain’s right-leaning Daily Telegraph, on Saturday.

Things went wrong shortly after Britain’s Unite union threatened to pull off a fuel tanker strike that could still leave thousands of service stations drained of gasoline. Such strikes can have serious political consequences in Britain, where gasoline prices are already among the highest in Europe.

The Conservatives took the initiative earlier this week, warning motorists to stock up on fuel in preparation for possible shortages. Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude went so far as to suggest that drivers fill their jerry cans — metal containers that can hold 20 litres (a little more than five gallons) of gasoline.

Soon, lines began forming outside gas stations. Pumps ran dry. Jerry cans flew off the shelves. All this despite the likelihood that the proposed strike was at least two weeks away.

Some opponents accused the government of sparking panic to distract from what had been a week of nasty news about the economy, Tory party donors, and an embarrassing controversy over officials’ decision to raise taxes on pasties, the cheap and savory snacks enjoyed by millions. Others said that the Conservatives were picking a fight with Unite, which enjoys close ties to the opposition Labour Party.

“We call on the government to come clean on its whole approach to this dispute,” Unite general secretary Len McCluskey said. “Is it acting as an honest broker, or is it spoiling for a fight in order to get itself out of the political hole its class-focussed economic mismanagement has put it in?”

One senior Tory seemed to acknowledge that politics played a role in the fuel pump panic.

“My feeling is this was to try to take people’s minds off donors, the (economic) budget and pasties,” lawmaker Bernard Jenkins told the BBC. “The government added to the heat on this.”

Pressure on the pumps appears to have eased after the Energy Department said late Friday that there was no need for motorists to fill their tanks. But an incident in the English city of York — where a woman burned herself while handling gasoline — could still haunt the Conservatives. The 46-year-old has burns over 40 per cent of her body after the gasoline she was pouring into a glass jug ignited and set fire to her clothes Thursday evening.

Although the full circumstances of the incident aren’t known, the left-leaning Daily Mirror tabloid was one of several newspapers which carried photograph of the woman on its front page Saturday.

The headline read: “THE HUMAN COST OF PLAYING POLITICS.”

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