THE union representing fuel tanker drivers has ruled out the threat of strikes over Easter and said it wanted to focus on peace talks.

Unite, which represents around 2,000 tanker drivers, said it retained the right to call industrial action if talks, expected to start next week, break down.

The move followed more panic buying at garages across the country and an incident in which a woman was badly burned when petrol ignited as she transferred it between containers in her kitchen.

Meanwhile the Petrol Retailers Association said petrol sales increased by more than 170% on Thursday, while sales of diesel were up by almost 80%.

Unite and the seven distribution companies involved in the dispute are in contact with the conciliation service Acas, but no substantive talks will be held until next week.

The union said it had been trying for more than a year to establish minimum standards in the fuel oil distribution industry and halt a "race to the bottom". Officials called for minimum standards on health and safety procedures, training, pensions, rates of pay, hours and holidays, equal opportunities and disciplinary procedures.

Assistant general secretary Diana Holland said: "We do still retain the right to call strike action for after Easter, should those talks break down. It should be stressed that what we are seeking is reasonable and no more than what is in place elsewhere in the industry.... This is not a political dispute. It is an industrial dispute and the Government's recent rhetoric will not help us achieve a negotiated settlement."

The Petrol Retailers Association said it was waiting for "practical and well-considered" leadership from the Government during the growing fuel crisis, adding that "300 Army drivers cannot possibly replace 2,000 striking civilian drivers".

The Department for Transport has announced a temporary relaxation of the enforcement of EU hours and working-time rules for drivers of fuel tankers, running until April 5.

Shadow chancellor Ed Balls accused Prime Minister David Cameron of playing "schoolboy political games" in stoking up panic over fuel to try to distract attention from his troubles with Budget tax rises and the scandal over donations to the Tories. Mr Balls told BBC Radio Leeds: "It was a political invention, the panic of the last couple of days, and the nation and some people are paying a very, very heavy price for that. I think it's backfired because I think people have generally seen that these are schoolboy political games being played by people who should be doing responsible jobs."