The government will do what it can to stop the decline of the UK's post offices but "there is a limit" to the amount of financial support it can give, Tony Blair has said.
A petition signed by four million people was delivered to Downing Street today by the National Federation of Sub-postmasters (NFSP), which is urging the government to take action to provide the network with some hope for the future.
About 4,000 post offices have closed since 1999, leaving 14,000 branches across the UK. The whole network is losing £111 million a year, despite an annual government subsidy of £150 million that is due to end in 2008.
Trade and industry secretary Alistair Darling is expected to announce a rescue plan in the near future, which will see some state subsidy but also some closures. Ministers say the 800 smallest post offices have just 16 visitors a week.
'All of our customers are international and we need those transport links to be as efficient and effective as possible'
'Because key gateways have been capacity constrained, a lot of freighter services now terminate in mainland Europe'
This morning, Post Office minister Jim Fitzpatrick said it would provide "an end to the uncertainty" about the network, and stressed that although most post offices were not commercially viable, the government recognised their "social value" for rural communities.
Almost 400 MPs have signed an early day motion calling for the Post Office card account to be preserved, and Kate Hoey, chairwoman of the all-party parliamentary group for sub-post offices, said it proved how important the network was to the British people.
"There is universal support for viable and sustainable post offices. Removing services and forcing people to go elsewhere flies in the face of previous commitments from government, and will destroy the network," she said.
However, this lunchtime Mr Blair told the House of Commons people were no longer using their local post office as much, and ministers had to acknowledge that times had changed.
Opposition parties have urged the government to review its decision to withdraw the Post Office account card, used by millions of people to access pensions and benefits, from 2010. They argue it is a crucial source of income for most branches.
But Mr Blair said: "There's a process of change that any government has to handle in this situation. We will look at the options but I can't say there will be even more money available.there is a limit on the amount of money we can put in."
Last night NFSP general secretary Colin Baker, who is leading a mass lobby on parliament this afternoon, said it was "crunch time" for the Post Office network.
"The 28 million customers who use the Post Office every week are confused as to what the government wants of the network and of the people who run it - we believe that the time is now overdue for ministers to decide," he said.
He added: "We are fighting today for the post office of tomorrow, and the government must act."