Air, ferry and train services to France are set to resume on Wednesday after a 48-hour shutdown due to fears of Covid which saw thousands of truckers stranded, triggering warnings of food shortages over Christmas.
After two days of talks, the government announced that an agreement had been reached with Paris to allow travel from the UK to France under limited circumstances, including freight, subject to the deployment of a testing program for drivers of heavy goods vehicles.
Under these agreements, EU travelers and UK citizens residing in the EU will also be allowed to enter France if they can provide a negative test for Covid-19 taken within the past 72 hours.
Transport Minister Grant Shapps appealed for trucks not to leave for Kent, where some 632 trucks were parked on the M20 motorway and 2,180 more at the disused Manston Airport. Once the blockade is lifted, it will likely take considerable time to clear the backlog.
“I am happy that we have made this important progress tonight with our French counterparts,” said Mr. Shapps.
“This protocol will see the French border reopen to those traveling for urgent reasons, provided they have a certified negative Covid test.
“We continue to urge carriers not to travel to Kent until further notice as we work to reduce congestion at ports.”
It is understood that the UK has offered to provide troops to administer rapid turnaround lateral flow tests to allay French concerns over the highly virulent new variant of Covid-19 which has resulted in a spike in infections in the south-east of England. The deal is believed to have been delayed by French demands for the more accurate but slower PCR test, which takes 24 to 48 hours to produce a result.
Trucker executives said the testing was a ‘knee-jerk’ idea that risked causing more delays and spreading the coronavirus.
Road Haulage Association policy director Duncan Buchanan told MPs it would simply remove drivers from isolation in their taxis and force them to mix in a way that would make infections more likely. The RHA warned that even an hour of waiting in ports for results would lead to significant disruption.
“I think it’s a waste of time,” Buchanan told the House of Commons Affairs Committee. “What we’re doing by stopping the riders and sending them all out to a field in the middle of Kent is they’ll start mixing. It is in fact counterproductive. I think it’s a knee-jerk reaction.
“I think we’ll end up with worse problems with Covid if we don’t get these people moving.”
By the end of the French blockade on Tuesday evening, Mr Buchanan estimated that a backlog of 6,000 to 7,000 trucks would have accumulated, many of them stationed elsewhere in the country while waiting for the situation in Kent to clarify. The delays meant that stocks of goods built for the Brexit transition at the end of 2020 were running out and drivers risked being stranded in the wrong place on December 31, he said.
“In the context of Brexit and what’s to come from January 1, this is the start of a very, very serious supply chain disruption that we’ve probably never experienced,” he said. he warned the deputies.
“We’re not going to starve, the sun is going to come up, it’s not that bad, but we’re in a very serious situation and it’s going to be incredibly disruptive.
Andrew Opie, director of food and sustainability at the British Retail Consortium, assured MPs that ‘everyone’s Christmas dinner is safe’, but warned of possible shortages of vegetables and fruit charges after Dec. 25 if the borders “don’t work freely enough” by Wednesday.
Empty trucks sitting in England were unable to return to the mainland to pick up further deliveries of fresh fruit, vegetables and salads, for which the UK relies on warmer European countries at this time of year , he explained.
And he warned: “Unless these borders are fully reopened and the trucks can move back to Spain, Portugal or other parts of Europe, we will have problems, especially with fresh produce from. of December 27. ”
There have been complaints about the lack of facilities for around 2,180 drivers stranded at Manston Airport, which has been turned into a makeshift truck fleet.
London-based trucker Laszlo Baliga said he spent the day hauling food and drinks to colleagues at the site after hearing there was no water or toilets at the interior, but was denied access to the site.
“We have ready-to-eat sausages, bread, tomatoes, lettuce, coffee,” he told the PA News Agency. “Staple foods at the moment for drivers. When we see Hungarian pilots coming in we say stop, and the pilots bring things to the other side to give to everyone.
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 in Manston shortly.”
With millions of pounds of perishable goods like Scottish seafood reportedly made unsaleable by the delays, Food and Drink Federation chief executive Ian Wright said companies affected by the bottling should be compensated.
He told MPs: “If the government gave out train tickets to go see Grandma, they should compensate … those who, through no fault of their own, found themselves in this situation where millions of pounds of shares escape as they queue. .
“We are going to push them very hard to consider a compensation system.”
In a statement 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 passengers should be facilitated”.
“Flight and train bans should be removed given the need to ensure essential travel and avoid supply chain disruptions,” he added in a non-binding recommendation for Member States.
France announced on Sunday evening that it would ban everything except “unaccompanied freight” from the UK for 48 hours, quickly disrupting all ferry links, as well as rail services through the Channel Tunnel.
More than 40 countries inside and outside the EU have imposed travel restrictions to contain the spread of the new variant, which UK government scientists say is 70% more infectious than the established version virus.