Air, ferry and train services to France are set to resume on Wednesday after a 48-hour shutdown over Covid fears which saw thousands of truckers stranded, sparking warnings of food shortages over Christmas.
After two days of talks, the government has announced an agreement had been reached with Paris to allow travel from the UK to France in limited circumstances, including freight, subject to the roll-out of a mass-testing programme for HGV drivers.
Under the arrangements, EU travellers and UK citizens with EU residence will also be allowed to cross into France if they can provide a negative test for Covid-19 carried out in the past 72 hours.
Transport minister Grant Shapps issued an appeal to lorries not to set off for Kent, where some 632 trucks were parked on the M20 motorway and a further 2,180 at the disused Manston Airport. Once the blockade is lifted, it is expected to take considerable time to clear the backlog.
“I am pleased that we have made this important progress with our French counterparts this evening,” Mr Shapps said.
“This protocol will see the French border reopen to those travelling for urgent reasons, provided they have a certified negative Covid test.
“We continue to urge hauliers not to travel to Kent until further notice as we work to alleviate congestion at ports.”
It is understood that the UK has offered to provide troops to administer rapid-turnaround lateral flow tests in order to assuage French concerns about the new and highly virulent variant of Covid-19 which has driven a spike in infections in southeast England. Agreement is thought to have been delayed by French demands for the more accurate but slower PCR test, which takes 24-48 hours to produce a result.
Truckers’ leaders said testing was a “knee-jerk” idea which risked causing more delays and spreading coronavirus.
Road Haulage Association policy director Duncan Buchanan told MPs it would simply remove drivers from the isolation of their cabs and force them to mingle in a way which made infections more likely. The RHA has warned that even an hour’s wait at ports for results will lead to significant disruption.
“I think it’s a waste of time,” Mr Buchanan told the House of Commons business committee. “What we're doing by stopping the drivers and sending them all to a field in the middle of Kent, is they're going to start mixing. This is actually counterproductive. I think it is a knee-jerk reaction.
“I think we will end up with worse problems with Covid if we don’t get these people moving.”
By the end of the French blockade on Tuesday night, Mr Buchanan estimated that a backlog of 6,000 to 7,000 trucks would have built up, many of them parked up elsewhere in the country waiting for the situation in Kent to become clear. Delays meant that stockpiles of goods built up for the transition to Brexit at the end of 2020 were being depleted and drivers were likely to be stranded in the wrong place on 31 December, he said.
“In the context of Brexit and what is coming from 1 January, this is the start of a very, very serious supply chain disruption of the like that we probably have never experienced,” he warned MPs.
“We’re not going to starve, the sun is going to come up, it’s not that bad, but we are in a very serious situation and it is going to be incredibly disruptive.”
Andrew Opie, director of food and sustainability at the British Retail Consortium, assured MPs that “everybody’s Christmas dinner is safe”, but warned of potential shortages of fresh vegetables and fruit after 25 December if the borders are not "running pretty much freely" by Wednesday.
Empty trucks sitting in England were unable to return to the continent to pick up further deliveries of fruit, fresh vegetables and salads, for which the UK depends on warmer European countries at this time of year, he explained.
And he warned: “Unless these borders are reopened fully and the trucks can roll back to Spain or Portugal or other parts of Europe, we will have problems, particularly with fresh produce from 27 December.”
There were complaints of a lack of facilities for around 2,180 drivers stranded at Manston Airport, which was transformed into a makeshift lorry-park.
London-based trucker Laszlo Baliga said he had spent the day ferrying food and drink to colleagues on the site after hearing there was no water or toilet facilities inside, but was been denied access to the site.
“We have got ready-to-eat sausages, bread, tomatoes, lettuce, coffee,” he told the PA news agency. “Basic foods for now for the drivers. When we see Hungarian drivers coming in we say stop, and the drivers take things in to the other side to give to everybody.”
The government and Kent Resilience Forums said in a joint statement: “Food, toilets and water are available for hauliers along the M20 and at Manston, with more food trucks expected to arrive at Manston shortly.”
With millions of pounds worth of perishable products like Scottish seafood believed to have been rendered unsellable by the delays, Food and Drink Federation chief executive Ian Wright said companies impacted by the gridlock should be compensated.
He told MPs: “If the government was handing out train fares to go see granny, they should compensate … those who through no fault of their own found themselves in this situation where millions of pounds of stock is going off as they sit in the queue.
“We’ll be pressing them very hard to look at a compensation scheme.”
In a statement issued to all EU member states on Tuesday afternoon, the European Commission said that while "all non-essential travel to and from the UK should be discouraged" to limit the spread of the new variant, other "essential travel and transit of passengers should be facilitated".
"Flight and train bans should be discontinued given the need to ensure essential travel and avoid supply chain disruptions," it added in a recommendation which is not binding on member states.
France announced on Sunday evening that it would be banning all but “unaccompanied freight” from the UK for 48 hours, quickly halting all ferry connections, as well as rail services through the Channel tunnel.
More than 40 countries both inside and outside the EU have imposed travel restrictions to contain the spread of the new variant, which UK government scientists claim is 70 per cent more infectious than the established version of the virus.
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