British fuel tanker drivers from five major distribution firms approved a national strike that threatens to disrupt deliveries, ground airlines and snarl traffic at the pumps.

British soldiers are on standby to replace drivers who deliver fuel to Tesco, Sainsbury's, BP, Shell and Esso. The workers could walk off the job 3 April.

Unite union representatives are to meet local chapters over the next few days to discuss industrial action against the industry, which Unite describes as "unstable and fragmented."

"These votes send a clear message throughout the industry and should prompt all the major companies to get around the table to establish minimum standards," Diana Holland, Unite Assistant General Secretary, said.

Tanker drivers work 12-hour shifts, driving 44-tonne vehicles holding between 36,000 and 40,000 litres of petroleum product.

"This is not about pay. This is about ensuring that high safety and training standards," Holland said.

More than 61.1 per cent of workers at seven firms voted. Drivers at Wincanton, Hoyer, BP, Norbert Dentressangle and Turners approved strike action. Drivers at two other centres, J.W Suckling and DHL, voted against striking.

Petrol shortages in 2000 create line-ups at the pumps.

Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude, referring to the fuel delivery crisis of 12 years ago (see photo to the right), said ministers had "learnt the lessons" of the past, and that police may also be drafted in to break up blockades and keep Britain moving.

"Widespread strike action affecting fuel supply at our supermarkets, garages and airports could cause disruption across the country," Mr Maude said.

The dispute over safety standards could shut thousands of petrol stations. Unite drivers supply fuel to 90 per cent of the UK's forecourts and the union said a strike could close thousands of petrol stations. A four-day strike by Royal Dutch Shell drivers in 2008 blocked fuel deliveries to almost 10 per cent of the UK's filling stations.

"The government should get a grip and show that it understands the gravity of current situation," Jon Trickett, Labour's Shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office, said. "They should immediately insist that both sides begin negotiations."

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