Ferries will run on Christmas Day and French firemen are on hand to help test for coronavirus as thousands of lorry drivers wanting to cross the Channel remain stranded in Kent.
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said ferries from Dover to Calais would run on Christmas Day and Boxing Day as the French firefighting team and the British military work with NHS Test and Trace to continue testing the thousands of hauliers parked waiting to make the crossing.
The drivers must return a negative coronavirus result carried out within the past 72 hours before making the crossing.
The head of the Road Haulage Association has accused France of treating drivers like “pawns in a larger game” as the UK stands on the cusp of brokering a deal with the EU – an allegation the French have repeatedly denied.
Richard Burnett sympathised with the hauliers, a small number of whom clashed with police this week after being stopped from heading to the continent, adding: “It just feels like it’s a lever the French have pulled specifically around the Brexit negotiations.”
He told the BBC: “We understand that we don’t want the virus to spread but I think we have to think practically about some of the reasons why this has happened.”
Mr Burnett added he was “relieved” hauliers would be able to move after French authorities demanded a negative test following the emergence of a new more transmissible coronavirus strain in the UK, but added it would “take some time” to clear the backlog.
He added lorry drivers’ rates of coronavirus infection are much lower than those of workers in other sectors, at between 3% and 6%.
Mr Shapps said France and the UK had agreed to keep the border open at Dover, the Eurotunnel and Calais “throughout Christmas” to get citizens and hauliers cleared “as soon as possible”.
He promised ferries will sail on Christmas Day and Boxing Day, as 26 French firemen brought 10,000 extra tests to the port on Thursday to help speed up the process.
He said on Twitter: “As well as ensuring ferries will now sail on Christmas and Boxing Day, we’ve also got great cooperation by French firemen working with NHS Test and Trace and our brilliant military in a big effort to clear the backlog created by the French border closure.”
France’s ambassador to the UK Catherine Colonna added that the two countries were “neighbours, partners, allies and (yes) friends”.
When asked how many lorries have been able to leave via ferry since Sunday, a Port of Dover spokesperson said: “Overnight, due to restrictions on testing, the port received under 100 freight vehicles.
“However, now testing has fully mobilised at the port we anticipate that figure rising significantly throughout the day.”
A disused airfield at Manston has become the main testing centre for hauliers, with drivers required to self-administer swabs in their cabs under supervision.
Trucks began entering the Eurotunnel again on Wednesday after drivers started producing negative Covid-19 results, but it is feared it could take days to carry out all the tests.
Around 170 military personnel, including from 36 Engineer Regiment and 1 Irish Guards, are assisting with testing.