Coronavirus tests for truckers at Channel ports is a “knee-jerk” idea that risk causing delays and spreading the disease, industry leaders have warned.
The transport secretary, Grant Shapps, is understood to have offered the use of rapid-turnaround tests in return for France lifting a 48-hour ban on freight transport that has caused massive disruption at Dover and raised fears of food shortages around Christmas.
Troops were expected to be deployed, if agreement is reached with Paris, to administer the lateral flow tests at the disused Manston airfield in Kent, which is being used as a temporary lorry park for some of the thousands of lorries waiting to get onto ferries or the Eurotunnel train service from Folkestone.
But after two days of intense negotiations, agreement was apparently held up by France’s demand for the use of the more accurate but slower PCR test, which can take 24 to 48 hours to deliver a result.
French prime minister, Jean Castex, announced France would allow EU travellers, along with British citizens with EU residency, back into the country if they had a negative virus test in the preceding 72 hours.
Mr Shapps said an agreement had been reached, but the Department for Transport refused to reveal what it covered. Mr Shapps said he would “provide an update on hauliers later”, but urged them to hold back from setting off to Kent.
The European Commission called on EU member states to drop blanket travel bans introduced on people coming from the UK in the wake of Saturday’s announcement of the discovery a new, more contagious variant of Covid-19. But Brussels has no power to enforce its judgment on Paris, whose ban on human-accompanied freight went beyond other countries’ restrictions on passenger movements.
Road Haulage Association policy director Duncan Buchanan warned that imposing tests at the border 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 the results of tests would lead to significant disruption.
“I think it’s a waste of time,” he 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.”
Even if the French blockade was lifted at the end of 48 hours on Tuesday night, Mr Buchanan estimated that a backlog of 6-7,000 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.
“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.
“Everything I’ve seen in the last 24 to 48 hours leads me to believe we are going to be in a very bad position come January and the problem is if we do not know what goods exactly are going to be in short supply. 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… We need to see these trucks start moving within 24 hours if we are to avoid problems on our shelves.”
A government spokesperson said: “Supermarkets are well prepared and the industry has been clear that there is enough stock. The UK has a highly resilient food supply chain, and people should continue to shop normally.”
There were complaints of a lack of facilities for around 2,180 lorry drivers stranded at Manston, with one London-based trucker saying he had spent the day ferrying food and drink to colleagues on the site.
Laszlo Baliga was denied access to the airfield, but told the PA news agency that he had heard there was no water or toilet facilities inside.
“We have got ready-to-eat sausages, bread, tomatoes, lettuce, coffee,” he said. “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.”
But the government and Kent Resilience Forum 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.”
Kent County Council said that by Tuesday evening, 632 lorries were parked on the M20 as part of the Operation Stack queuing system, with fears that more may arrive as the 48-hour ban on movements to France was due to come to an end at 11pm.
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 recommendation issued on Tuesday afternoon, Brussels said travel restrictions to prevent the spread of any new variant of Covid-19 should have exemptions to prevent border disruption.
In a statement the Commission said that while “all non-essential travel to and from the UK should be discouraged", 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.
On Sunday evening, France announced that it would be banning all but “unaccompanied freight” from the UK for 48 hours, stranding lorry drivers and other logistics workers on the other side of the channel. All ferry connections, as well as rail services through the Channel tunnel, were quickly halted.
France is far from alone in imposing travel bans on the UK. More than 40 countries both inside and outside the EU are trying 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.
Register for free to continue reading
Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism
By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists
Already have an account? sign in
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies