Furious truckers trying to reach France clash with police over Covid-19 testing chaos
Furious truck drivers stranded at the English port of Dover scuffled with police as Britain sought to get cross-Channel traffic moving after a partial blockade by France to contain a highly infectious coronavirus variant.
After turning parts of southern England into a vast truck parking lot by closing the border to incoming freight, France opened its border on Wednesday to truckers who have a negative Covid-19 test that is less than 72 hours old.
But on the ground at the port of Dover – for centuries one of the main arteries for trade with the rest of Europe – there was little sign of any tests – or much other support for stranded drivers.
“They talk about some Covid test but there are no Covid tests,” Blazej Pankiewicz, a trucker from Torun, Poland, told Reuters in Dover surrounded by angry drivers.
Pankiewicz said he was extremely sad to be missing Christmas back home with his family which had already gathered.
Huge queues of trucks remain stacked on a motorway towards the Eurotunnel Channel Tunnel and on roads to Dover, while others have been parked up at the former nearby airport at Manston.
Tempers were beginning to flare among drivers, many from Eastern Europe who do not speak English and are angry that they will not be able to get home to their families before Christmas.
Some drivers clashed with police and sounded their horns in protest around the port. Many have been eating through their last provisions on the side of the road while their families gather for Christmas thousands of miles away.
Police said there had been disturbances in Dover and Manston "involving individuals hoping to cross the Channel" and one arrest had been made.
"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.
The British government has drafted in the military to help but there was confusion amongst drivers about how to get tests, and warnings it would take time to clear the backlog of trucks.
“Testing has begun as we look to get traffic moving again between the UK and France,” Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said.
“However, French border police only acting on agreement from this morning and severe delays continue. Please avoid Kent while the backlog is cleared. Arriving in the area will delay your journey,” he said on Twitter.
Testing has begun as we look to get traffic moving again between the UK and France.— Rt Hon Grant Shapps MP (@grantshapps) December 23, 2020
However, French border police only acting on agreement from this morning and severe delays continue. Please AVOID Kent while the backlog is cleared. Arriving in the area will delay your journey.
Poland's Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said he had been in touch with Britain's Boris Johnson and French President Emmanuel Macron about the jam.
"This can be done differently. This whole process could've been better organised," he said. The Road Haulage Association, which estimated there were up to 10,000 trucks being held up in Kent, said it was chaotic.
"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. Getlink, the operator of the Channel Tunnel, said just 45 trucks had reached France between midnight and 11:00 GMT.
Further Brexit disruption
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 December 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.
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.
Many of the mostly European drivers, many stranded with their trucks and without access to hot food or bathroom facilities, believe 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 Sterlcha in Bulgaria.
(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS)
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