Britain's fuel crisis worsened Wednesday despite Prime Minister Tony Blair's pledge to end it, as panicky Britons hoarded gasoline and food and the nation's biggest supermarkets began rationing bread and milk.
While demonstrators protesting a fuel tax continued to block the nation's nine oil refineries, motorists spent all day hunting for gasoline at the few stations still open. About 90 percent of Britain's 13,000 service stations remained closed.
Many Britons showed little faith in Blair's promise that the government would soon have the crisis under control. A BBC poll found a surprising level of support for the fuel-tax protest. The BBC said more than three quarters of the people it polled backed the protest, while only 17 percent opposed it.
For the first time in 11 years, the National Health Service was put on "red alert," as the health minister, Alan Milburn, ordered hospitals to implement emergency plans. Hospitals canceled non-emergency surgery, saying doctors and nurses were having trouble getting to work.
The army has been put on standby to deliver fuel to essential services, such as hospitals, if needed. A school system in Wales closed, saying teachers couldn't drive to work, and other school systems said they probably will close. The Royal Mail warned that postal services have been curtailed and could be suspended. The slowdown in deliveries and panic buying prompted the rationing of the bread and milk, with one supermarket chain limiting shoppers to three loaves and six bottles.
Protests by truckers and farmers over fuel taxes continued unabated across Europe, with disruption reported in Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany. Truckers in Ireland, Spain and as far east as Poland have threatened disruption unless their governments cut fuel taxes.
But the situation was most serious in Britain. While Blair insisted he had gotten a guarantee from oil companies that they would order their drivers to leave Britain's nine refineries to resume deliveries, only a trickle of gasoline was being brought to the pumps.
Britain uses about 22-million barrels of oil a day, but analysts estimated that only about 10 percent of that total was delivered Wednesday.
On a normal day, about 2,000 oil trucks leave refineries in Britain; Wednesday about 200 trucks made deliveries, government officials said. Nearly all of that fuel was being reserved for police, fire and other essential services.
Some drivers who did leave the refineries were threatened by protesters. At Stanlow refinery in northwest England, where the protest began last week, one demonstrator yelled at a driver: "We'll remember you!"
William Hague, leader of the British opposition, called for Parliament to be recalled from its summer recess for an emergency debate on the crisis.
"This has arisen because Tony Blair doesn't listen to anyone. He should be brought to the one place he has to listen," said Hague, who said Blair owed the nation an apology for fumbling the crisis.
But Blair's aides said it was hypocritical of the Conservatives to criticize the Labor Party for refusing to cut the fuel tax, as it was the Tories who implemented the tax in the first place.
Still, Blair's aides admit his government is facing its most serious crisis since assuming power in May 1997. Sensing the Labor Party's vulnerability on the issue, the Conservatives, led by Hague, are trying to exploit the popular anger at Blair's government. Polls suggest most Britons blame the crisis on the government, which collects the highest fuel tax in Europe, making gasoline in London, at nearly $5 a gallon, the most expensive in Europe. More than 70 percent of the pump price is in tax.
A beleaguered Blair emerged from another day of closed-door meetings at 10 Downing St. to acknowledge that his pledge on Tuesday that things would be "on their way back to normal in 24 hours" was overly optimistic. "We are a considerable distance from where we need to go."
But Blair remained defiant, saying he would not give into demands from truckers and farmers to reduce the fuel tax, saying the government would not negotiate under the threat of blackmail.
"If we did give in," he said, "how long before a new grievance emerged?"
He blamed the crisis on the oil companies and its drivers. "Where the determination exists, the supplies do indeed get through," he said.
Like Milburn, who accused the demonstrators of risking the lives of those who need medical care, Blair warned the protesters.
"Real damage is being done to real people," Blair said. "Lives are at risk. Businesses will shut down and people will be put out of work."
Ian Stewart, a truck driver from London, said the fuel tax was already inflicting serious hardship on his wife and three children.
"We are determined to see this through," said Stewart, who with dozens of other truckers brought traffic to a standstill on busy Park Lane in London's West End Wednesday.
OPEC WARNING: The president of OPEC said Wednesday an energy crisis is imminent in the medium term if worldwide refining and production capacity doesn't grow.
Ali Rodriguez, who is also Venezuela's oil minister, said OPEC's latest output agreement is enough to meet worldwide oil demand, but the sparse production and refining capacity of some OPEC and non-OPEC countries could block efforts to reduce prices.
"On the horizon there is a very severe crisis if capacity limitations of OPEC and non-OPEC countries stay as they are," Rodriguez said.
Text for chart not available electronically. Please see microfilm.