It would be easy to assume the chaos on the UK border would be loud – a cacophony of beeps and shouts as raging travellers yell about missed deadlines and wasted hours.
However with the port of Dover closed off, limiting one of the main routes for goods out of England and into France, the all-out breakdown of one of the nation’s most vital trade corridors is a quiet one. The port, normally packed with lorries, lies empty. The roads around it are in use but hardly rammed, kept fluid and moving by a mixture of police and outsourced port security workers. The odd trucker may blast a horn, but driver after driver questioning why they can’t get in is pointed to the same capitalised words on the same glaring orange sign – “FRENCH BORDERS CLOSED”.
It is a strange coincidence that the UK has found itself so prepared for this moment. The UK had been planning contingencies for disruption at the port to mitigate the harms of a disruptive Brexit – however in the end they were deployed in response to a new strain of a virus that no one had heard of just over a year ago. The fast spread of the coronavirus mutation prompted Boris Johnson to implement harsh restrictions on the southeast of England – resulting in bans on allowing Britons to cross the border from a string of nations. As the UK’s neighbours pulled up the drawbridge, France’s Le Monde newspaper called it “A Brexit before its time”. In Italy, La Repubblica warned across its front page of the “Virus Inglese” while Germany’s Suddeutsche Zeitung summed it up with the headline “Britain is isolated”.
Of the scores of nations to limit travel from the UK, France carries the potential to be the most damaging. Some 22 per cent of the nation’s exports into the EU leave from Dover – a crossing which, as foreign secretary Dominic Raab pointed out in 2018, the UK is “particularly reliant on”. To compensate for traffic, under Operation Brock, the M20 motorway has become a mass parking lot for articulated lorries, while the nearby Manston airport has been readied in case it needs to be used for overflow. Lorries who had made it to the port were waved on without further guidance, many finding lay-bys to wait out the potential days of disruption.
For those who found a nearby place to park, the reality left on the ground is one that has summed up the year – delay, frustration and confusion. While Boris Johnson had once hinted at a “more significant return to normality” by this Christmas, the present reality – one of dashed hopes and disrupted plans – feels closer to the “normality” the country spent the rest of the year establishing.
“It’s a big mess” Elvis Isaac tells The Independent. His plan had been to take his family and drive to see his loved ones back home for the first time in a year. As he speaks, resigned passengers load plastic Christmas decorations and suitcases into their mini van with its Romanian licence plate. “Yesterday we came here around eight in the evening, and the big surprise was when we got up to the dock and they told us the French government had suspended all the crossings”.
They had spent the best part of a day waiting for something to change before admitting defeat. Having watched for a day as goods came in but no one got out, his frustration is palpable. “I pay my taxes in the UK, I have rights just like everybody else, I have residence, I have a house here. I’m just trying to go home to see my family – so you can imagine how I feel.“
Xhefar, a 63-year-old haulier from Kosovo who has been in the business for a decade, spent the night in his vehicle – the debris of a day behind the wheel spread around him. For him, leaving is not an option. “We just lose all of our business,” he says when asked how disruption had effected him. “I am waiting for it to maybe open tonight or tomorrow. It’s not a complete mess for the business but it is very hard.”
However the cost of the exercise is a personal one: being away from his loved ones when he would have been salvaging some normalcy from the end of a tumultuous year. “I will try to be back for Christmas but I know that I can’t. I’ll have to be away. So I’ll miss Christmas, and I hope I don’t miss celebrating the new year.”
But as frustrating as his circumstances are, he is resigned to them. Asked how it felt to be left to sleep behind the steering wheel because of the pandemic, he shrugs broadly. “So-so”, he said. “It just happens”.
Some are better prepared than others. In the early afternoon Karl Papenfuss emerged from his bed in the back of a customised white van to find the English seafront covered in swirling rain and harsh winds. The conditions would likely have felt more dismal had the 28-year-old not recently wrapped up a stint as an expedition leader on a sailing yacht in Antarctica.
The German, who has only spent one Christmas with his family in the last eight years, had planned to travel back to see them by driving through France and Belgium. He found out that wouldn’t be possible when he was confronted by the sign at the dock. “I just missed the information while driving”, he says. “I didn’t watch any news and there was also nothing on the radio which I was a bit surprised by. I wanted to hear some news and I just heard one horrible Christmas song after another.”
However he’ll now go back to Bristol to spend the break with friends. Given his former profession, he has grown somewhat accustomed to rolling with the punches. “You have to deal with the circumstances that are before you”, he says. “It’s just what we’re living with right now. There’s no point in being angry with anyone or anything else, you just have to handle it.”
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