Fuel is being diverted from large companies to garage forecourts in a move that threatens to disrupt online deliveries, The Telegraph has learnt.
Bosses across Britain’s fuel terminals are under orders to prioritise motorists over major firms as ministers scramble to avoid angry scenes at the petrol pumps.
Industry sources claimed that government officials had instructed bosses running Britain’s network of fuel terminals to send tankers heading for large companies to garages and service stations instead.
However, senior Whitehall sources insisted that any decisions to divert supplies had been made by the fuel firms themselves and not on government orders.
Companies including major online retailers are underwood to have had fuel deliveries cancelled in recent days. Experts warned against attempts to bring the crisis to a swift end by “robbing Peter to pay Paul”.
It came as Kwasi Kwarteng, the Business Secretary, announced that the Government was deploying a “reserve tanker fleet” of 80 vehicles driven by civilians to boost deliveries. Military troops will also be driving tankers within "the next couple of days", he added.
Ministers are now increasingly optimistic that the worst of the crisis is over, with government data showing that more fuel was delivered to forecourts on Wednesday than sold for the first time since mass panic buying began last Friday.
At the height of the crisis, 1,800 forecourts had reported at least one grade of fuel running low. However, this has also fallen significantly in the past 48 hours to just 790. The Petrol Retailers Association said there were "encouraging signs” with only 27pc of sites running out on Wednesday compared with two-thirds on Sunday.
However, Matthew Lesh from the Adam Smith Institute think tank warned that the strategy of prioritising fuel towards garage forecourts could backfire.
“Robbing Peter to pay Paul won’t solve the fuel crisis,” he said. “The Government should be extremely careful trying to manage complex supply chains, deciding who gets priority or encouraging fuel to be redirected from commercial to personal usage.
“This might help address a short-term PR issue but could deepen the crisis by creating new commercial shortages.”
Petrol cost to the consumer on the rise
The strategy was welcomed by motorist groups amid fears that ministers are still struggling to get to grips with the crisis.
Luke Bosdet, fuel spokesman for the AA, said: “I think drivers would say ‘damn good idea’.”
However, he conceded that the spectre of large companies such as online retailers and delivery firms running out of fuel was concerning. “It’s a very difficult one to call.”
Large companies have historically held their reserves of diesel and petrol to protect against their business being interrupted by shortages. They order the fuel from the same terminals as garage forecourts.
There are seven petrol refineries in the UK of scale, the largest of which is the Phillips 66 Humber Refinery in north Lincolnshire. The fuel is then transported by rail or pipe from the refineries to scores of terminals before being loaded onto lorry tankers – run by the likes of Wincanton and Hoyer – for delivery.
The Government has suspended competition law so that oil firms can work together to tackle the nationwide shortage.
In a joint statement, fuel firms including Esso and BP said there were “signs that the situation at the pumps has begun to improve”.
“We remain confident that the situation will stabilise further in the coming days and encourage everyone to fill up as they normally would to help forecourts return to normal.”
A government spokesman said it was “simply untrue” to suggest that officials had ordered fuel firms to divert their deliveries. “There has always been and continues to be plenty of fuel at refineries and terminals and we are now seeing signs that the situation at the pumps has begun to improve with more stations getting more fuel.”
Industry sources raised concerns that the move could have knock-on effects including hampering online deliveries and other vital services. They added that companies running low on fuel may simply join the queues at garage forecourts, prolonging the current crisis.