The UK government on Tuesday faced calls for nurses, police, teachers and other key workers to be given priority at petrol pumps, as the army was put on standby to ease a fuel supply crisis.
Filling stations across the country have seen long, snaking queues of frustrated and angry motorists concerned that a shortage of tanker drivers could lead to pumps running dry.
But four days of panic-buying, even as the government insisted there was no shortage of fuel stocks, has left some frontline public sector workers unable to get to work.
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps told Sky News there were "tentative signs of stabilisation", as filling stations were restocked, although that has not yet shortened queues.
But he blamed the public for panic-buying and the pandemic for the original driver shortage, which prevented 30,000 heavy goods vehicle operators being tested.
"Once we all return to our normal buying habits... the quicker we can get back to normality," he added
The chair of the Petrol Retailers Association Brian Madderson told Sky while there were "demand levels well above the norm" that his members were "seeing the first signs of a move towards equilibrium".
The British Medical Association and the Royal College of Nursing, however, said "urgent action" was still required, as healthcare staff were increasingly unable to travel.
"We can't be waiting in queues for two or three hours for petrol or diesel when we have patients to see," BMA deputy chairman David Wrigley told Times Radio.
Britain's biggest public sector workers' union, Unison, called for the government to trigger emergency powers, as some local authorities mulled unilaterally declaring a major incident to give priority to essential staff.
Paramedic Jennifer Ward, 21, said she had to try five different garages in Norfolk, eastern England, before she could fill up her ambulance.
"We work a stressful job and we don't need any added anxiety," she told the Daily Mail.
- 'Get a grip' -
The government maintains that the situation is likely to ease in the coming days.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson late Monday announced that troops had been put on alert to intervene after repeated denials.
Even normally supportive Sun newspaper said mixed messaging was undermining public confidence, accusing the government of being "asleep at the wheel".
"Is anyone actually in charge in Downing Street?" it asked in an editorial. "Get a grip on it, PM. Public patience is close to breaking point."
Fuel shortages are now having a knock-on effect across several sectors.
Dozens of non-league football matches were called off and some schools said online lessons could return.
Divyesh Ruparelia, a 58-year-old taxi driver, told AFP he was "100 percent worried" about the situation after he couldn't find fuel on Monday. "Today, if it's anything like yesterday, then I will I will run out of fuel," he added.
Blaming Brexit and the coronavirus for the fuel shortages, the London resident said he believed problems would continue "until we find a workforce from somewhere" to fill driving jobs.
David Brown, chair of the National Courier and Despatch Association, told AFP his drivers were unable to commit to some longer journeys as they were "struggling to find fuel".
- 'Utter incompetence' -
Britain was contending with a shortage of truckers even before the fuel crisis, with empty supermarket shelves and delivery delays stoking fears of a lack of food and toys for Christmas.
The British Meat Processors Association has raised fears that panic-buying of fuel could make supermarkets' existing supply chain problems worse.
The government insists Europe is facing the same problem and has eased its post-Brexit immigration rules for three months in the hope of enticing foreign truckers back.
But critics say that is unlikely to help, blaming the country's departure from the EU that took full effect in January, combined with the pandemic, and a failure to replace the thousands of overseas drivers who left.
The main opposition Labour party's home affairs spokesman, Nick Thomas-Symonds, accused the government of "utter incompetence" and blamed it on its "handling of Brexit".