Critical workers would be given exclusive access to certain petrol stations to ease the fuel crisis under an emergency government plan.
The national emergency plan for fuel grants key workers "priority access" to pumps and caps the amount drivers can spend on fuel.
On Monday – a fourth day of queues for petrol – Boris Johnson faced calls from NHS groups, unions and medical bodies including the British Medical Association (BMA), as well as Labour and Tory politicians, to make sure doctors, nurses and other key workers get fuel first.
Surrey County Council could even adopt the measure unilaterally, with its Conservative leader, Tim Oliver, saying on Monday night it may declare a "major incident" to do so.
Mr Johnson has ordered up to 150 Army tanker drivers to be trained to deliver petrol in an attempt to ease shortages, with 80 likely to be helping out in the coming days.
The requirement for lorry drivers to complete a series of refresher courses to keep their certificate will also be temporarily suspended to help ease the driver shortages.
Government sources said it was hoped that the petrol crisis would be alleviated without the need for further measures. Options such as designating petrol stations for key workers and a purchase cap would be held in reserve as backup options.
Grant Shapps, the Transport Secretary, said there were signs that panic buying was starting to "moderate", with "more grades of fuel now available at more petrol stations".
Ten fuel companies, including BP, Shell and Esso, issued a joint statement on Monday saying they expected demand to "return to its normal levels in the coming days". The move was an attempt to reassure Britons that the closed petrol stations and queues seen across the country would ease if people returned to normal behaviour.
On Monday, there were reports from the Petrol Retailers’ Association that 90 per cent of petrol stations in some areas had run out of fuel. Bin collections were cancelled in some areas, while teaching unions warned that schools might have to return to online learning if teachers were unable to get to work.
Ben Wallace, the Defence Secretary, said: "The men and women of our Armed Forces stand ready to alleviate the transport pressures where they are felt most. That is why I have authorised their increased preparedness, so they are ready to respond if needed."
Ministers continue to hope that the petrol crisis will ease in the coming days, with many drivers who have already filled up their tanks unlikely to do so again soon.
The national emergency plan for fuel, published by the Government in January last year, outlined the 10 steps that could be taken in a crisis scenario. Some of the steps – including lifting competition laws so drivers can deliver petrol to rival businesses – have been implemented.
Another option is the designated filling station scheme, which would mean "emergency and critical service vehicles" are given priority. The move was taken by Tony Blair during the fuel crisis in 2000.
Senior figures at the BMA, the Royal College of Nursing, Unison, NHS Providers and Prison Officers Association on Monday called for the measure.
Christina McAnea, Unison’s general secretary, said: "Ambulance crews, nurses, care workers, teaching assistants, police staff and other key workers mustn’t be left stranded or forced to queue for hours simply to get to a pump."
Staff direct queues at a petrol station in Ely, Cambridgeshire, during a rainstorm on Monday
Credit: Geoff Robinson
The calls were echoed by Sadiq Khan, the London Mayor, and Sir Iain Duncan Smith, the former Conservative leader. Mr Khan urged the Government to consider the measure "urgently" and Sir Iain said ministers should "think very seriously about prioritising key workers".
EveryDoctor, a health group representing 1,700 doctors, said it had been told that two consultants at a site in Bedford had been unable to get to work because they did not have fuel.
On Monday, government sources involved in discussions said prioritising key workers was an option but not one "under consideration at this stage".
But the possibility of local authorities acting independently emerged on Monday. Mr Oliver said the local resilience forum was considering declaring "a major incident" and prioritising key workers.
He said: "We have been experiencing the same problems as everyone else so we are deciding whether or not to declare a major incident which would give the forum powers to prioritise key workers. We have got access to fuel supplies which we can designate for priority workers so social workers can be given a card which enables them to access those supplies."
In a move to reassure customers, the 10 fuel companies’ joint statement was released by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.
"There is plenty of fuel at UK refineries and terminals, and as an industry we are working closely with the Government to help ensure fuel is available to be delivered to stations across the country," the statement read.
"As many cars are now holding more fuel than usual, we expect that demand will return to its normal levels in the coming days, easing pressures on fuel station forecourts. We would encourage everyone to buy fuel as they usually would."
It was signed by BP, Shell, Esso Petroleum/ExxonMobil, Wincanton, Certas Energy UK, Hoyer Petrolog UK, Greenergy, Fuels Transport & Logistics, Downstream Fuel and Suckling Transport.