Thousands of stranded truck drivers at the British port of Dover vented their anger Wednesday as they struggled to access coronavirus tests, after France agreed to ease a blockade despite fears over a new Covid-19 variant.
The UK and France struck a deal late on Tuesday evening to allow truck drivers, French citizens and residents across the English Channel, after days of chaos at the border sparked panic buying in the UK and led to fears over food and medicine shortages.
But the agreement requires people to have proof of a negative Covid-19 test conducted in the past 72 hours, prompting a rush to test drivers that is expected to draw in the British military and the National Health Service (NHS).
Just two trucks had arrived at France’s Calais port late on Wednesday morning, a press officer for the port told CNN, with several thousand still lined up in rows on a motorway and in a disused airport in southeast England.
UK Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said on Twitter that testing was ongoing with military support in Dover, but warned that it is “a mammoth task and clearing the backlog will take time and patience.”
A testing regime that will allow the hauliers to leave Britain has been hastily organized, with 170 military personnel deployed to carry out mass testing on the ground. But little evidence of it was visible on Wednesday morning, with police advising drivers to get tested either via the NHS or at Kent’s Manston Airport.
And tension mounted between some drivers and officials, with crowds of hauliers shouting and arguing with authorities over the standstill, access to testing and the lack of facilities at the port of Dover on Wednesday. As dawn broke on Wednesday morning, visibly frustrated drivers complained to police officers of about the lack of toilet facilities. “No shower, no toilet, no nothing,” one said.
Later in the day, a CNN team witnessed a mobile testing unit arrive at the port. Yet the day ended as it began, with anxiety mounting among the drivers desperate to get home for the holiday season.
At least two people were arrested when scuffles broke out between police and truck drivers at the port city. Footage showed police using batons to push back truck drivers – though it remains unclear what sparked the incident.
Almost 5,000 trucks are waiting to cross the border according to the Kent Resilience Forum, which tackles emergencies, in scenes that could foreshadow further Brexit-related turmoil in the New Year. On Tuesday, Highways England estimated there were another 900 in gridlock on the nearby M20 motorway, and hundreds more have been stuck at Manston Airport, which was brought into use as a parking lot.
The period leading up to Christmas is traditionally a busy time for trade, as fresh produce from Europe is imported for the festive period.
Adding to the urgency is the impending end of the Brexit transition period on December 31, with a trade deal between the UK and the EU still not reached and Britain already facing the prospect of severe disruption at its ports as a result.
Meanwhile, the impact of the new coronavirus variant continued to be felt across the UK. On Wednesday Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, announced that more regions would be placed under the toughest coronavirus restrictions from December 26.
It comes after Prime Minister Boris Johnson effectively canceled millions of Brits’ Christmas plans on Saturday by imposing “tier 4” restrictions on London and the south-east, despite promising for weeks that he would not stop families from gathering for the holidays.
And in a further headache, Hancock confirmed Wednesday that yet another new coronavirus variant – this one first identified in South Africa – has been found in two people in Britain. He instructed anyone who has spent time in South Africa in the past 15 days, or knows someone who has, to quarantine immediately.
Tense scenes at border
The crisis at the UK border is evident from the ground – where angry disputes between officials and drivers took place on Wednesday – and from the air, with images of seemingly endless lines of trucks splashed across British newspapers.
“We see no tests coming, no water, no food, (and) we are crammed on top of each other,” Vanessa Ibarlucea, spokeswoman for the French National Road Haulage Federation, told CNN on Wednesday.
“We are expecting some drivers to be stuck on the other side for the holidays,” she said.
The chaos began on Sunday night when France, along with several countries in Europe and around the world, shut off the UK due to fears about a new variant of the coronavirus that was discovered in England.
The crossing between Dover and the French city of Calais, which serves as a major European trade artery and handles around 17% of the UK’s goods imports, ground to a halt after the announcement. The shutdown caused many British supermarket shelves to empty, in scenes reminiscent of the early days of the pandemic.
According to a statement from the UK Department of Transport, admittance into France would now be granted “to those traveling for urgent reasons – including hauliers – French citizens, and British citizens with French residency” after a deal was reached on Tuesday night.
This new protocol will be reviewed on December 31, and could remain in place until January 6th. All freight truck drivers are required to take an antigen test that can detect the new strain of Covid-19 and provide results in under an hour, according to the statement.
But police were telling truck drivers they are not yet allowed to cross even if they have a negative test on Wednesday, claiming that instruction came from French authorities. An officer also told CNN they had been shown fraudulent test results by some drivers.
“People are crazy and nervous right now, because (we) are pretty sure we will not reach our families for Christmas,” a driver from Poland told CNN on Wednesday.
The driver, named Greg, described a tumultuous scene as some waited to be tested at Manston Airport, while others waited to hear whether members of the NHS Test and Trace service would be deployed.
“We are here since Monday morning and there is no information … they are sending us to airport where there (are) 4,000 trucks and there is no testing,” he said. “They are doing some testing somewhere, I’m not sure where … why is there no testing here?”
The impact of the disruption will likely be felt by British consumers for several days, experts said. “Even working extremely quickly and with Calais possibly shut for Christmas Day, it is clear it could take until the New Year to return to normal operations,” Ian Wright, chief executive of the UK’s Food and Drink Federation, said on Wednesday.
“That means we are likely to see, locally, reduced on-shelf availability of some fresh vegetables and fruits, beginning next week. We will also see potential significant disruption to the flow of ingredients into the UK,” he added.