Furious truck drivers scuffled with police and sounded their horns in protest around the English port of Dover as a partial blockade by France designed to contain a highly infectious coronavirus variant has stranded thousands before Christmas.
Paris and London agreed late on Tuesday that drivers carrying a negative test result could board ferries for Calais from Wednesday after much of the world shut its borders to Britain to contain the new mutated variant.
A British minister said the military would start testing drivers but he warned that it would take time to clear the backlog, hammering Britain’s most important trade route for food just days before it leaves the European Union’s orbit.
Huge queues of trucks have been stacked on a motorway toward the Eurotunnel Channel Tunnel and Dover in the southeast county of Kent, while others have been parked on the former nearby airport at Manston.
With no sign of traffic to the European mainland resuming and confusion over how to get a coronavirus test, TV footage showed drivers honking their truck horns and flashing lights in unison in protest.
‘We have no information’
As tempers flared in Dover, there were brief scuffles between a small number of police officers and drivers, many who do not speak English and are angry that they will not be able to get home to their families before Christmas.
“This is not how it should work. We have no information. The people need to be fetching information,” Mekki Coskun from Dortmund in Germany, told Reuters. “No information … they get worried.”
Police said there had been disturbances in Dover and Manston “involving individuals hoping to cross the Channel” and one arrest had been made.
The Road Haulage Association, which estimated there were up to 10,000 trucks being held up in Kent, said the situation was chaos as the testing system was not yet ready.
“The border is still closed, the testing regime isn’t happening yet, you’ve got truckers very angry and we’re starting to see a breakdown in law and order in a small way among very frustrated guys who want to get back by Christmas,” Rod McKenzie, managing director of policy for the RHA, said.
Normally between 7,500-8,500 trucks travel via the port every day but volumes have reached more than 10,000 recently.
Some of the extra traffic was a result of Christmas demand, but many were in the country to deliver goods to companies who are stockpiling parts before Britain finally leaves the EU on Dec. 31, a move that is expected to cause further disruption in January when a full customs border comes into force.
The British Retail Consortium, an industry lobby group, warned that until the backlog of trucks was cleared and supply chains returned to normal, there could be issues with the availability of some fresh goods.
Logistics firms have also said that many European drivers had already refused to come to Britain in the new year when they would have to carry customs paperwork, and the need to secure a coronavirus test will further compound the situation, pushing up freight prices.
British Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick said he hoped Channel crossings would resume on Wednesday morning, with the armed forces setting up the testing infrastructure.
Officials have warned truck drivers not to come to Kent despite the border reopening, and that none should travel to Dover or the Eurotunnel site without being tested for the coronavirus first.
Drivers will first take a rapid lateral flow test. Anyone who records a positive result will take a more comprehensive PCR test, which takes longer to secure a result, and anyone testing positive again will be given a hotel room to isolate.
The mostly European drivers, many stranded with their trucks and without access to hot food or bathroom facilities, have grown increasingly irate, with many believing they are pawns in a political standoff between Britain and the EU as trade talks reach a climax.
“We don’t have food to eat, we don’t have drink, we don’t have anything. Nobody … cares about us,” said Stella Vradzheva, a driver from Strelcha in Bulgaria.