Autumn 2000: when fuel shortages brought UK to virtual standstill

Rationing brings echoes of price protests that led to panic buying and filling stations running dry

As Britain faces an escalating energy and fuel crisis, with BP rationing deliveries of petrol, there are echoes of autumn 2000 when shortages brought the country to a virtual standstill.

Protests over prices led to the pumps running dry on many filling station forecourts. The crisis, precipitated by a big rise in fuel prices, caught the government and motorists by surprise.

As the price of crude oil rose to £23 a barrel, campaigners warned that petrol could soon cost £4 a gallon, with Britain’s prices the highest in Europe. When the Labour government ruled out a cut in fuel duties, there was anger.

Farmers and lorry drivers from Wales and the north-west first blockaded the Stanlow Oil refinery in Cheshire, then owned by Shell, on 8 September. The Texaco refinery in Pembrokeshire was next.

The protests escalated over one week, including at the UK’s largest inland oil terminal at Kingsbury in the West Midlands, with demands that the government reduce fuel taxes. Motorways were blocked by lorry “go slows”. Britain began grinding to a halt as a desperate Tony Blair issued a warning that lives would be lost if the fuel blockades were not lifted.

Within 24 hours of the protests spreading, pumps on many garage forecourts ran dry and those that still had fuel began to ration it. Texaco said four of its 12 terminals had been brought to a practical standstill, while Esso reported the same number of depots affected.

Motorists sat in queues as tempers soared. A week’s worth of fuel was selling in three days, and by 12 September 2000, up to 3,000 petrol stations were dry. One independent filling station in Derby was, reportedly, selling petrol at £11 a gallon.

The NHS was put on an emergency footing for the first time in more than a decade. Doctors and health officials went down to the picket lines to appeal for the blockades to be lifted. The blood transfusion service said it was experiencing difficulties.

There was panic buying in supermarkets. Sainsbury’s said it would run out of food within days. Safeway began rationing bread and milk.

At one point, the Royal Mail announced that it only had supplies for one more day’s deliveries, as its 36,000 vehicles came close to running out. More than 70 schools were forced to close in some parts of the country. Rubbish collections came under threat and the railway network was hit.

long queue of cars at a Texaco filling station
Motorists queue for petrol in east London on 16 September 2000. Photograph: Dan Chung/The Guardian

About 80 fuel tankers and army drivers were put on standby to transport supplies for essential services as the government staged crisis talks. Blair held emergency talks with police and oil companies.

Labour’s popularity in the polls plummeted as the Confederation of British Industry warned that firms had begun to scale back production and lay off staff. The London Chamber of Commerce warned that the crisis was costing British businesses £250m a day.

On 14 September, the Stanlow blockade was lifted, with demonstrators at others following. Though the government initially had to designate 300 petrol stations to supply emergency services and essential worker, about 20% of the network was reportedly back on stream within 48 hours.

Contributor

Caroline Davies

The GuardianTramp

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