DOVER, ENGLAND (REUTERS, AFP) – Angry truckers stranded outside the English port of Dover scuffled with police on Wednesday (Dec 23) and demanded to cross to France.
Thousands of drivers, many from across Europe, have been stuck for days in southern England. Many will miss Christmas with their families.
The chaos continued even after Britain and France reached a deal late on Tuesday to reopen their borders, following an initial blockage to stop the spread of a new and highly infectious coronavirus variant that was discovered in southern England.
Much of the world shut its borders to Britain this week after the mutated coronavirus variant started to spread quickly, with France going further by blocking passengers and freight just days before Britain leaves the European Union's orbit.
That left thousands of European truck drivers stranded in southeast England just days before Christmas.
Paris lifted the blockade to allow drivers with a recent negative Covid-19 test to enter the country.
UK Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said it would begin handing out tests at multiple locations on Wednesday, but cautioned that the process would take time.
“We’ll be making sure that we’re out there providing tests,” Mr Shapps said. “This will take two or three days for things to be cleared.”
Britain’s Housing Minister Robert Jenrick said the military would help set up testing sites across the southeast to get the lorries moving, but that it will take time to clear the backlog.
“I hope that this morning, you’ll see people and HGVs (heavy goods vehicles) crossing the Channel at the short straits,” he told Sky News television. “We’re putting in place the infrastructure. So the armed forces will be doing that (Covid-19 testing) in the first instance to help us to set that up and to get through some of the backlog that you’ve seen.”
Drivers will first take a lateral flow Covid-19 test which typically gives results within an hour. Anyone who records a positive result will take a more comprehensive polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test, which takes longer to secure a result, and anyone testing positive again will be given a hotel room to isolate.
Earlier in the morning, passengers from the UK disembarked from ferries in the French port of Calais following the lifting of the ban.
The Cotes des Flandres ferry – the first ship to leave Dover after the restrictions were lifted – arrived at around 3.30am (10.30am Singapore time), followed shortly afterwards by P&O’s Spirit of France.
French Transport Minister Jean-Baptiste Djebarri also confirmed that air travel and Eurostar trains would “resume service as of (Wednesday) morning”.
“French nationals, people living in France and those with a legitimate reason will have to be carrying a negative test,” he said.
More than 2,800 lorries have been stranded in southern England, unable to make the crossing to France.
With queues of trucks snaking to the horizon in England and some supermarket shelves stripped just days before Christmas, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson scrambled to get French President Emmanuel Macron to lift a ban on freight from Britain.
Earlier, the European Commission advised that non-essential travel to and from Britain should be discouraged but said that people heading home should be allowed to do so, provided they undergo a Covid-19 test or quarantine for 10 days.
However, border controls are governed by national policy, so each EU country can have its own rules.
The discovery of the new variant, just months before vaccines are expected to be widely available, sowed a fresh wave of panic in a pandemic that has killed about 1.7 million people worldwide and more than 67,000 in Britain.
Scientists say there is no evidence that vaccines currently being deployed in Britain – made by Pfizer and BioNTech – or other Covid-19 shots in development will not protect against this variant, known as the B.1.1.7 lineage.
Food supply worries
The United Kingdom’s effective Covid-19 quarantine came just nine days before it is due to part ways with the EU after a transition period – considered to be one of the biggest changes in post-World War II British history.
More than 40 countries across Europe and beyond have suspended travel from Britain since the weekend. Germany imposed a ban on British travellers from Tuesday that could remain in place until Jan 6.
One exception was the United States, which does not intend to impose Covid-19 screenings for passengers from Britain.
Britain’s border crisis led to some panic-buying: shoppers stripped shelves in some supermarkets of turkey, toilet rolls, bread and vegetables.
While the government said there was enough food for Christmas, market leader Tesco and No. 2 player Sainsbury’s both said food supplies would be affected if the disruption continued. Tesco said it had imposed temporary buying limits on some essential products.
Britain said 632 trucks were stacked up on the M20 motorway in Kent, southern England, and 2,188 at nearby Manston Airport, now being used as a giant lorry park. The government said additional toilets and food vendors were being arranged, after the Road Haulage Association raised concerns about drivers’ welfare.
While trucks have still been able to cross from France into Britain, they could not return so European truck drivers are extremely reluctant to travel.
The border closures were causing headaches across Europe, especially for those trying to transport perishable food. Milk suppliers were already trying to boost milk stocks in Britain ahead of Brexit.
“The plan was to stock up in the next 10 days so if there is a Brexit problem there are stocks for January,” said Mr Alexander Anton, the secretary-general of the European Dairy Association.
“Now you can’t find a transport company to send a driver to the UK.”
Lactalis, the world’s biggest dairy company, has had to reschedule some lorry deliveries to Britain because of the border closure, a spokesman for the French group said.
Television footage showed a small group of people arguing with police at the entrance to the Dover port.
Elsewhere, drivers, some swearing about Mr Johnson and Mr Macron, said they just wanted to get back home in time for Christmas.