More than 1,500 lorries are stuck in Kent waiting to leave the UK as politicians thrash out a plan to reopen France’s border to trade and travel.
France shut its UK border for 48 hours on Sunday amid fears of a new coronavirus variant. More than 50 countries have now banned UK arrivals.
Home Secretary Priti Patel said 650 lorries are stacked up on the M20, with a further 873 at a lorry park.
The UK’s top scientist has warned the new variant is “everywhere”.
Sir Patrick Vallance
added that further restrictions are likely to be needed in more areas of England.
In England, 17 million people are under tier four rules, the toughest level, where people are being told to stay at home and not leave the area. Some parts of England, as well as Wales, have asked people who travel from tier four areas to self-isolate.
Wales has entered a new national lockdown, Scotland has tightened rules and both Scotland and Northern Ireland will begin national lockdowns on Boxing Day.
Almost every EU member state has now stopped travel from the UK amid fears over the virus mutation, and the EU is talking about how to form a united response.
France shut its border to UK arrivals for 48 hours on Sunday, and currently no lorries are leaving the Port of Dover or Eurotunnel to France.
Bosses at Eurotunnel estimate that up to 2,500 freight vehicles are expected to arrive in the UK later, and the same again tomorrow.
The port of Harwich in Essex – which is about 130 miles from Dover by road – is also seeing a build up of lorries as drivers divert from Dover, a spokesman for the port said. The port of Felixstowe in Suffolk is also busy but there are no queues.
Home Secretary Priti Patel said discussions were under way between the UK and France “to find a resolution” to the Channel disruption.
“You’ll hear later on today in terms of developments and updates,” she told BBC Breakfast.
France’s Europe minister Clément Beaune said any plans would be agreed by Prime Minister Boris Johnson and French President Emmanuel Macron and come into effect from Wednesday.
Ms Patel said potentially testing lorry drivers at ports was “part of the discussions”, and added: “Getting those tests up and running can happen relatively quickly.”
EU member states are understood to be pressing for UK arrivals to be tested for the virus before entering their countries.
Mr Johnson and Mr Macron spoke on Monday and, according to BBC Paris correspondent Hugh Schofield, a solution to the blockage will likely include compulsory negative Covid tests for lorry drivers coming into France from the UK.
It comes as:
- Supermarkets seek to reassure shoppers Christmas supplies are plentiful amid reports of bare shelves and long queues
- But borders need to be opened by Wednesday to ensure no disruption to food supplies, the British Retail Consortium said
- Northern Ireland’s Executive votes against introducing a travel ban between Northern Ireland and England, Scotland and Wales
- Royal Mail said it has temporarily suspended all mail services to Europe, with the exception of the Republic of Ireland, due to travel restrictions
- The number of excess deaths in the UK since the start of the pandemic has passed 81,000
- The boss of BioNTech, Ugur Sahin, says “we don’t know at the moment if our vaccine is also able to provide protection against this new variant” but they have “scientific confidence” that it will
- British Army soldiers have been drafted in to drive ambulances in Wales
The border disruption also affected passenger services – with many air, rail and sea services cancelled between the UK and France, as well as other countries.
Eurotunnel said it hoped passengers would be able to travel between the UK and France from Wednesday or Thursday, if a solution is agreed.
British Airways said it would operate “a reduced and dynamic schedule” amid the uncertainty.
At the scene in Dover
BBC reporter Simon Jones
Driving around Dover this morning, there are HGVs everywhere – on the side of the road, in lay bys and in car parks.
Lorry drivers are used to sitting in delays, and will often sleep in their cabs. But for those I’ve spoken to this morning, it’s the uncertainty that is the most difficult thing.
They don’t know how long this will go on for; they don’t know whether they will get home for Christmas.
Even if France does reopen the border today, this backlog will take some time to shift, especially if drivers have to be tested before crossing the Channel.
The Channel is a vital trade route, with about 10,000 lorries a day travelling between Dover and Calais at Christmas, largely bringing in the freshest produce.
Lorry driver Greg Mazurek from Poland, who is in Dover and has been in his cab for two days, told the BBC on Tuesday morning: “What can I say? I feel bad, really bad, terrible in fact. We know nothing, we don’t know if we can get home [to] our families for Christmas.
“If they implement testing here, maybe it will be a good idea. But we need to start now, to get there [by] Christmas Eve.”
According to the head of the Road Haulage Association, lorry drivers waiting to cross the Channel were offered just a single cereal bar each by Kent County Council on Monday.
Meanwhile, Shane Brennan, the head of the Cold Chain Federation which represents the UK’s temperature-controlled transport industry, said the number of vehicles stuck was worse than the government figures suggested, as lorries were “dispersed around southern England”.
Ms Patel said the numbers do “fluctuate”, and added there were welfare facilities and support available for hauliers at Manston Airport.
Queues on the M20 in Kent aren’t exactly unheard of, but the French decision to close the border is dramatic and has caused a lot of disruption.
Politicians on both sides of the Channel are hopeful they might be able to agree a way of getting things moving again before the end of the year.
But if that requires a massive expansion of testing for coronavirus at the border, that’s easy to say, far harder to do.
Labour’s Rachel Reeves told BBC Breakfast “the government has wasted the last 24 hours” and called for “testing in place so we can reopen the border”.
She said “we need to be treating these drivers with much better respect” and added “the welfare of these drivers should be top of our minds, they are essential workers”.
Labour also said spare capacity in the coronavirus testing system should be used to help deal with the situation at British ports.
Currently, the UK has the capacity to process 663,550 tests a day, but the number of tests processed each day is fewer, for example 433,470 on Sunday.
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