Thousands of lorry drivers are expected to wake up on a cold Christmas morning in their vehicles in Kent, as truckers await longed-for negative coronavirus test results and a backlog of key workers queuing to cross the Channel to clear.
Though the border has re-opened and testing is now in full swing, it is thought Christmas will be another day by the roadside for many who have been caught in the middle of new border restrictions over the mutated version of coronavirus in the UK.
The British Army is even being drafted in to help with logistics.
The backlog in hauliers looking to travel across the channel comes despite the efforts of transport secretary Grant Shapps, who on Wednesday night urged truckers to "be patient" as military personnel work to speed up operations in the county.
A chorus of beeping horns sounded at the Port of Dover on Christmas Eve as those at the front of the queue celebrated finally being able to leave – but many more are expected to be stuck there until at least Boxing Day, marking almost a week spent alone, many miles from home.
The leader of Kent County Council expressed his “deep sympathy” for the thousands of stranded lorry drivers in the county likely to be unable to make it home to their families in time for Christmas.
Trucks began entering the Eurotunnel again on Wednesday following a 48-hour blockade after drivers started producing negative Covid-19 results, which they are now required to do within a 72-hour window before entering France.
However, it is feared it could take days to carry out all the tests, and scores were still stranded on Thursday as the clock ticked down to Christmas Day.
Grant Shapps, who on Wednesday night urged truckers to be patient, said the border at Dover, the Eurotunnel and Calais would remain open “throughout Christmas” to get hauliers cleared “as soon as possible”, with the help of 10,000 more tests brought by 26 French firefighters drafted in on Thursday.
He added on Thursday: “We need to get the situation in Kent, caused by the French government's sudden imposition of Covid restrictions, resolved as soon as possible.
"I have today sent special instructions to the Army to take control of testing and HGV management operations in the county. Our aim is to get foreign hauliers home with their families as quickly as we can.
“I know it's been hard for many drivers cooped up in their cabs at this precious time of year but I assure them that we are doing our utmost to get them home.”
The testing and support effort is set to bolstered by an additional 800 military personnel on Christmas Day, as well as 60 soldiers from Poland’s armed forces.
Minister James Heappey wrote on Twitter: “Fantastic international effort in Kent. By tomorrow afternoon nearly 1,000 UK soldiers will be delivering testing and welfare to truck drivers alongside 30 French firefighters and 60 Polish soldiers. Thank you so much to all of them for working over Christmas to get freight moving.”
Traffic is moving more quickly at the Eurotunnel, where more than 1,000 vehicles left on Wednesday night, with around 2,000 more expected to depart by the end of Thursday, but many will remain there for Christmas Day, according to Duncan Buchanan, a policy director at the Road Haulage Association.
One lorry driver told BBC South East he received a negative coronavirus test result before heading to the port, but it was set to expire before he had the chance to make the crossing because of the backlog of HGVs.
“We now have to get tested again in the port, which just adds to the delays,” he said.
Ferries from Dover to Calais are to run on Christmas Day and Boxing Day in a bid to get drivers – some of whom have spent days waiting in their trucks since the border temporarily closed on Sunday night – home as soon as possible.
Drivers, who have been waiting on crammed motorways and at Manston airport, are now allowed to cross the Channel once they have returned negative coronavirus tests, which are being administered by members of the military and French firefighters.
Richard Burnett, the head of the Road Haulage Association, said he was "relieved" hauliers would be able to move after French authorities demanded a negative test following the emergence of a new more transmissible coronavirus strain in the UK, but said it would "take some time" to clear the backlog.
Volunteers from community groups and businesses have been distributing food parcels to stranded truckers who clashed with police and protested by blocking roads amid complaints over a lack of food and toilet facilities.
Workers at Ashford’s GSE Group, which includes the Ashford International Truckstop, Hythe Imperial Hotel & Spa and the Marquis of Granby pub, were busy handing out 1,000 “grab bags” filled with food supplies to stranded truck drivers on Christmas Eve.
Volunteers at Ashford’s Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have also put together food parcels to be distributed on Christmas Eve and Boxing Day.
Images shared on social media show dozens of brown paper bags lined up ready to be packed into waiting vans.
Imran Nisar, a project leader at the Muslim charity Al-Khair Foundation, which prepared more than 400 lunches for the drivers, said his team of volunteers would keep delivering supplies until the last trucker left for home – even on Christmas Day if necessary.
“Some of them don't even have water in their cabs so these supplies are making a big difference to them and also raises their morale,” he said.
Volunteers from the Salvation Army, Sikh groups and others have also helped keep the drivers going.
Sikh humanitarian relief charity Khalsa Aid joined forces with Gravesend businessman Dip Dhillon, who runs multiple Domino's pizza franchises, to deliver 2,500 pizzas to truckers on Christmas Eve.
Extra portable toilets, food and drinking water are being provided by Kent County Council, charities and other groups to the hauliers who are stuck on a former airfield or the main roads into Dover.
Fewer than 100 vehicles left the port on Wednesday night, but a spokesperson said that as testing continued, departure numbers would "rise significantly", though they could not provide figures for Thursday.
Additional reporting by Press Association
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