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Friday, 3 November, 2000, 14:43 GMT
Coping on empty
Should the fuel blockades restart, will the country grind to a halt again? And will the public come out in support of the protesters or the government?

In just under a fortnight, fuel protesters could take to the streets again in an attempt to force the government to cut petrol taxes.

During the blockades that ran the country dry last September, the protesters gave the government 60 days to cut taxes or face further disruption - the deadline expires on 14 November.

Protesters may have lost the public's sympathy
Yet the government has made contingency plans to protect key services should the protesters take to the streets again.

And public opinion seems to be turning against the protesters, says media commentator Roy Greenslade.

"I don't think the public understood the issues previously, but now the government has been able to bring those out."

Also working in the government's favour is the high profile of the protest leader, David Handley.

David Handley
David Handley: Sidelined by spin?
"When you personalise it like that, people start to ask about bias, motivation and the [protesters'] intellectual grasp of the issue."

Mr Handley did his cause no favours by likening the protesters to "cornered rats" when he appeared before a select committee on Wednesday, Mr Greenslade says.

The media, too, are coming out against further blockades, he says. The Mirror, for instance, on Thursday published a photo of Mr Handley and said he must be stopped.

So how do key services propose to cope should the blockades go ahead?

Fuel supplies: Task one for the government is to ensure that fuel supplies are never cut in this way again.

About 1,000 soldiers have been trained to drive tankers, and will be drafted in should civilian drivers be prevented from delivering fuel.

The Association of Chief Police Officers has said it is "ready for anything" should the protests turn nasty.

Hospitals and emergency services: During the previous blockade, the health sector was one of many taken by surprise.

Pump run dry
A familiar sight last September
Ambulance crews were put on emergency-only duties and some hospitals cancelled non-urgent operations. Some ran short of supplies such as stitches.

"The plans that are in place mean that shouldn't be an issue this time around," a Department of Health spokesman says.

Health services and fire stations have been advised to keep on-site fuel stocks topped up. Should the pumps run dry again, oil companies will deliver direct to these bunkers to relieve pressure on petrol station forecourts.

Key staff members will be allowed to fill up at designated petrol stations, and other employees will be encouraged to get to work by public transport or car-pool.

Railways: Already labouring with severe weather conditions and speed restrictions imposed in the wake of the Hatfield crash, the companies are preparing for further disruptions.

London mayor Ken Livington on the Tube
Take Ken's lead - dump the car
Two-thirds of the national network runs on diesel. Some rely on lorry deliveries for fuel, others ship in supplies by train.

The Association of Train Operating Companies is looking at whether it is feasible - and safe - to reopen pipelines once used to deliver supplies to some companies.

These were closed at least five years ago.

Some rail companies will make fuel supplies available for drivers' cars, others will put on minibuses to ferry staff to work.

Food supplies: The supermarkets plan to keep the deliveries rolling and the shelves stocked.

White stuff: No panic buying yet
Yet the big companies are reluctant to talk in detail about their plans, for fear of sparking panic-buying among customers or blockades by fuel protesters.

A spokeswoman for Sainsbury's says fuel reserves at its lorry depots are kept at full capacity.

Safeway is making the most of alternative modes of transport, making deliveries by rail or its fleet of lorries powered by CNG.



See also:

02 Nov 00 | UK Politics
30 Oct 00 | UK Politics
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