Covid-19: UK-France travel set to resume amid mass testing to clear up to 4,000 lorries stranded in Kent

Lorries parked on the M20
Operation Stack has seen hundreds of lorries parked on the M20 in Kent. Credit: PA

Rail, air and sea services between the UK and France will reopen on Wednesday morning after the French government agreed to reopen their border after it was closed amid concerns over the spread of a new Covid-19 variant.

France, along with many other countries worldwide, closed its border with the UK, leading to huge tailbacks of hundreds of lorries in Kent, but now, residents and citizens of France will be allowed to return home if they return a negative coronavirus test.

NHS Test and Trace teams were seen heading to Dover on Tuesday night and arriving at Manston Airport - where the majority of the lorries are parked - to begin testing from 8am.

However, it is thought it could take 72 hours to clear the backlog of up to 4,000 lorries stranded in Kent, meaning many drivers will not make it home in time for Christmas Day.

Under the agreement announced this evening, admittance into France will only be granted to those travelling for urgent reasons – including hauliers – French citizens, and British citizens with French residency. This raises questions about what it means for other EU-national lorry drivers who are in the UK.

Britons will not be allowed to cross over the border as part of the deal.

On Tuesday evening, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps confirmed a deal had been struck to resume travel across the border, but he urged lorry drivers not to head to Kent in the hope of getting across the border soon.

Mr Shapps said rapid lateral flow tests – which can give results in about 30 minutes – will be used in the testing programme, while the French authorities will be carrying out similar testing on hauliers entering the UK.

Full details of the testing programme have not yet been released, but Mr Shapps warned it could take until Christmas for congestion to be relieved near ports.

He said: “We have managed to get all those tests to Kent, enough for all the vehicles which will want to return before Christmas, so that won’t be an issue.

“Obviously there’s a physical issue of providing the test, getting the results. A negative test allows you to leave.

“But all of that requires operationalising and that can’t happen in an instant, so this will take two or three days for things to be cleared.”

He urged hauliers not to travel to Kent until further notice.

The Road Haulage Association (RHA) warned UK supply chains would be affected despite the mass testing programme being introduced.

An RHA spokesperson said: “Even if the border is opened up, a short delay in the process is going to mean huge delays in the supply chain.”

Elizabeth de Jong, policy director at business group Logistics UK, said it was “vital” that testing procedures are “stood up fast to ensure drivers can be processed and get home for Christmas safely”.

She added: “The backlog of traffic across the region will take time to clear so hauliers should wait for further news before travelling to Kent.”

The protocol agreed with the French government will be reviewed on December 31 – but could run until January 6, the Department for Transport (DfT) said.

Those who can make journeys include French and EU residents, British or third-party nationals who normally live in France or the EU, as well as some other groups.

The transport secretary also announced the temporary relaxation of drivers’ hours for hauliers to help them get through UK borders safely over the coming weeks.

The Netherlands has lifted its travel restrictions on passengers from the UK, provided they return a negative test result within 72 hours of departure.

Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said that perishable produce such as seafood must be prioritised if hauliers start moving freight across the Channel again on Wednesday.

She tweeted: “We still await detail of the agreement, but if freight starts moving tomorrow – as we must hope it will – the plan to prioritise perishable produce such as seafood should be activated immediately.”

Drivers facing their second night sleeping in their vehicles at Manston protested on Tuesday afternoon by honking their horns.

Managing director of the Road Haulage Association, Rod McKenzie said stranded lorry drivers waiting to cross the Channel on Monday evening were offered just a single cereal bar each by Kent County Council.

Laszlo Baliga, who was delivering food and water to those parked at Manston, said one driver had told him the only toilet on the site was blocked.

Lazslo Baglia delivers supplies to stranded lorry drivers. Credit: PA

“No water and no toilet now – there is one toilet, but it is now blocked,” the 51-year-old told said.

Mr Baliga, from London, who himself is a lorry driver, said he began taking supplies to the disused airfield after Hungarian drivers posted on Facebook asking for help.

"We have taken money from friends and gone to Asda, Tesco,” he said.

"This is our third time, we have already brought ready-to-eat sausages, bread, tomatoes, iceberg lettuce, coffee. Basic foods for now for the drivers."

He said he and others have spent more than £500 on food and water for drivers inside the site.

“We like to help because this is a difficult time," he said.

A Sikh humanitarian organisation meanwhile has been delivering hundreds of hot meals to lorry drivers.

The lanes leading to check-in at the port of Dover remain empty. Credit: PA