Bosses at Scotland’s Grangemouth refinery started a shutdown of the site at the weekend due to the threat strike action by staff – triggering a spate of panic buying at the pumps. Grangemouth owner INEOS said the site – Scotland’s only crude oil refinery – could be forced to close for a month, and warned of major fuel shortages. INEOS said

staff were set to strike on 27th and 28th April over the dispute involving pensions.

In a statement, it said that because of safety issues, the strike would effectively close the plant for a month. The company said trade union UNITE’s planned strike “could have significant consequences for Scotland and the north of England”. If the strike goes ahead next week, up to 1,200 UNITE members could walk out – out of a total of 1,350 Grangemouth employees.

INEOS, which bought the refinery from BP in 2005, said it was preparing for a total shut down of the refinery and petrochemical plant by Friday in advance of the strike action. This would ensure the facility was as safe as possible during the strike. It added that impact on fuel production would start today – when the first of the site’s crude oil units was shut down. The refinery produces 9m litres of clean fuels per day – ultra-low sulphur petrol and diesel.

As news of the strike spread at the weekend, motorists started rushing to the pumps to panic buy at Scotland’s forecourts. There were reports of 5am queues at pumps, with sales increasing by up to 50%.

MSP John Swinney, speaking on BBC Radio Scotland’s Good Morning Scotland programme, urged people to “be responsible”. He said there were significant reserves available but urged people not to go out and panic buy.

He said: “There’s not much point in having lots of cars with lots of fuel in their tanks going absolutely nowhere when we’ve got stations without fuel,” the BBC reported. “So, I’d ask people to be responsible. We’re doing everything we can to encourage a resolution of this dispute and avoid any interruption to the continuity of supplies but the government will take all the steps that we can to make sure the Scottish economy is able to continue to function as effectively as it can.”

The move came as the AA revealed UK motorists were paying more than £10.2m extra on fuel per day compared to last year. It warned that families were having to cut high street spending, while businesses, low-income and rural drivers were becoming “more vocal about the impact of high fuel prices on their financial well-being.”

A spokesman for the RAC commented: “We pay the highest rate of tax on petrol anywhere in Europe, while it is getting harder and harder to find oil, plus there is increasing demand for fuel globally. People are at their wits’ end.”

Meanwhile, campaigners were reported to be secretly planning blockades to protest at the fuel process. Angered by the government’s planned 2p rise inn fuel duty – due to be implemented in October – they are believed to be aiming to recreate the chaotic scenes of 2000 by holding demonstrations across the UK to coincide with the two-day Grangemouth strike.