France 'working on protocol' to allow movement from UK to resume following freight and travel ban

Video report by ITV News Business and Economics Editor Joel Hills

The French Government has said that "in the next few hours" it will establish a "protocol to ensure that movement from the UK can resume".

A growing list of European countries have banned travel from the UK as a mutant variant of Covid-19 spreads that it is behind a rapid escalation of cases in London and the south east.

In a post shared on Twitter by the French Embassy in the UK, French Transport Minister Jean-Baptiste Djebbari said: "In the next few hours, at European level, we’re going to establish a solid health protocol to ensure that movement from the UK can resume.

"Our priority: to protect our nationals and our fellow citizens."

ITV News Political Correspondent Paul Brand said that the French President Emmanuel Macron may require people to present proof of a negative Covid test once the borders are opened.

ITV News Europe Editor James Mates brings the view from the Continent

Dover’s ferry terminal has closed to “all accompanied traffic leaving the UK” after France moved to shut its border and the government is urging everyone not to travel to Kent ports, where they expect "significant disruption."

While unaccompanied freight is exempt from the 48-hour ban, goods that would usually be transported on lorries driven onto ferries by drivers face being unable to cross the Channel to France.

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Thousands of lorries that were meant to travel across the English Channel on Monday have been told to stay away from Kent ports.

HGVs turning up at Dover on Monday morning were greeted with glowing signs saying “French borders closed” and were turned away.

However, inbound freight is coming into the Port of Dover, the port has confirmed to the PA news agency.

Dover MP Natalie Elphicke condemned the French decision to halt travel and urged Emmanuel Macron’s government to reopen the border.

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She said: “The French government’s decision to close the border at no notice was unnecessary, unhelpful and irresponsible.

“It has caused serious traffic congestion at a time when traffic flows were already high, with Christmas and over-stocking causing congestion at a number of ports ahead of the end of the transition period.

“The longer that this goes on, the longer it will take to unwind, meaning that there could be queues past Christmas unless the French reopen the border soon.”

She said there was “simply no need to close the border, a simple conversation about virus management would have been the right way forward”.

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said the ban on accompanied freight was "a bit of an issue".

But he added: "Do be aware that most goods - 80% of goods - come into this country via unaccompanied freight so they come in in cargo which doesn't require a driver with it.

"So yes it's a concern but it's something that we hope to get resolved and I've been speaking to my French opposite number who is keen to resolve it."

Mr Shapps said that the disused Manston Airport in Kent would be used as a lorry park, while Operation Stack – the contingency measures used to queue on the M20 whenever there is disruption at the Channel – was already in place, with the motorway set to be closed on Monday night.

Hauliers are the "often on their own" and the "last people to come into contact with others", the Transport Secretary added.

"I think when the French look at this," he said. "They'll probably come to the same conclusion as all of their neighbours have done.

"All of the other countries have decided that the hauliers can carry on even if they have decided to add some restrictions to other types of flights."

Toyota has decided to halt production in their factories on both sides on the Channel due to a delay in the arrival of parts at plants in the UK and France.

The travel ban has prompted Sainsbury's to warn that some fresh food products could be missing from shelves due to freight restrictions at ports.

Sainsbury's said the travel ban could mean fresh produce shortages. Credit: PA

A spokesperson for Sainsbury's said: "All products for the Great British Christmas lunch are already in the country and we have plenty of these.

"We are also sourcing everything we can from the UK and looking into alternative transport for product sourced from Europe.

"If nothing changes, we will start to see gaps over the coming days on lettuce, some salad leaves, cauliflowers, broccoli and citrus fruit – all of which are imported from the Continent at this time of year.

"We hope the UK and French governments can come to a mutually agreeable solution that prioritises the immediate passage of produce and any other food at the ports."

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The chief executive of the Food and Drink Federation has said there is “no need” to panic-buy as a result of France’s ban on freight lorries.

Ian Wright said that there is, however, “concern” around food supplies in the longer term, particularly after Christmas.

He told BBC Breakfast on Monday: “The problem is the return journey of drivers coming to the UK. If they cannot be guaranteed either that they will get out of the UK because of the congestion or that they will be able to secure a return journey full of whatever product it is, that’s going to make it much more unlikely for them to come in the first place.

“And, over time, because the transport system requires these round trips, that will reduce the ability of us to bring food into the country after Christmas if that takes effect.

“We need a pragmatic solution that gets drivers across the border and into the UK by whatever route in exactly the same way we had throughout the lockdown in March and in the earlier part of the year.”

Freight traffic was queuing up at the Eurotunnel entrance days before the travel ban. Credit: PA

Meanwhile, the Eurotunnel will remain completely closed from the UK to France for 48 hours as of 10pm on Sunday.

With 10,000 trucks normally crossing the Channel daily in the run up to Christmas - according to the British Retail Consortium - there are serious concerns within the food and drink industry.

Port of Dover chief executive Doug Bannister has called on the UK and French governments to allow lorry drivers to resume travel across the Channel.

He told the PA news agency: “With the news that was released around this new variant that’s in the UK now, clearly what that meant is that a whole lot of people around Europe had to start thinking carefully about this.

“But the one thing that we did see is, certainly during the first lockdown back in March and April, we did see that lorry drivers had been exempt.

“So whilst there may have been travel bans, which indeed there were, the freight could still carry on across the Channel every day that allowed the nation to keep its stock levels high.

“The hope is that governments are in dialogue right now to try and determine what protocols need to be put in place.”

The chief executive of the Road Haulage Association (RHA), Richard Burnett, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “With it being so close to Christmas we’re looking at 48 hours at this point in time in terms of the restrictions, we’re likely to see Operation Stack building in terms of numbers of vehicles on the UK side and that might be a deterrent for EU hauliers to want to come so close to Christmas and end up being stranded here, that’s part of the challenge that we’re facing today.”

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Tuesday is expected to be an even busier day and one executive has told him Kent will "start to become a car park."

Anticipating disruption in the country, a government spokesperson said: "We are urging everybody – including all hauliers – to avoid travelling to Kent ports until further notice.

“We are working closely with Kent Resilience Forum, Kent Council and Highways England to ensure contingency measures are urgently put in place to manage disruption, and the Prime Minister will chair a Cobra meeting tomorrow to discuss the situation.”

Brexit talks continue, with "significant differences" remaining and just 10 days to go until the transition period ends.

Drivers will be reluctant to travel to France without a guarantee they will be able to return. Credit: PA

Andrew Opie, of the British Retail Consortium, said: “The closure of France to UK traffic, including accompanied freight poses difficulties for UK capacity to import and export key goods during the busy Christmas period.

“While goods can enter from France, few haulage firms will be willing to send trucks and drivers across to the UK without a guarantee they can return to the EU in a timely manner.

"This is a key supply route for fresh produce at this time of year: the Channel crossings see 10,000 trucks passing daily during peak periods such as in the run up to Christmas.

“We urge the UK Government and the EU to find a pragmatic solution to this as soon as possible, to prevent disruption for consumers. Retailers have stocked up on goods ahead of Christmas which should prevent immediate problems.

"However, any prolonged closure of the French border would be a problem as the UK enters the final weeks before the transition ends on December 31.”