Juan Andrés had braced himself for what promised to be an atypical holiday season. But the lorry driver from southern Spain never imagined that Christmas Day would be spent in his cab tucking into a ham and cheese sandwich – among provisions handed out by the British military – as he inched towards the Channel.
“I would describe it as a kidnapping,” said the 52-year-old when asked about the diplomatic impasse that left him stranded on British roads for nearly a week. As many as 10,000 lorries from across Europe were stuck after France temporarily closed its border over fears of a fast-spreading coronavirus variant, reopening only to those drivers who could show a negative coronavirus test.
In his 18 years as a driver, Andrés had always meticulously planned his routes so that he could be home for Christmas. This year was no exception – after dropping off a shipment of frozen goods in Northamptonshire last Sunday, a return delivery was meant to bring him to Seville in time to spend Christmas with his wife, children and three-year-old grandchild.
Instead he found himself snarled in a line of lorries that stretched into the thousands along England’s M20 motorway, dependent on the food rations in his truck and bathrooms that were few and far between. “The few they have are in a really bad state, and really dirty” he said.
The time ticked by slowly, punctuated by a slight advance of 50 or 100 metres every 10 minutes or so along the gridlocked highway. “The closer you get to the crossing, the more garbage you see in the ditch,” he said.
Some 1,300 miles away in Seville, his wife, Toñy Cardeilhac Pérez, was indignant. “He’s trapped on the highway and nobody has come by to see if he’s OK,” she said. “We called him when we were preparing Christmas lunch, and he was eating a bag of hazelnuts. It broke my heart.”
Officials had relaxed the rules to allow families to gather at Christmas. “We had been really looking forward to it. But it was really hard to sit at a table and pretend to be happy and calm when you know that he’s stranded somewhere,” she said. “You don’t know if he has food or if he has a bathroom he can use. You feel completely powerless.”
On Friday afternoon – after Andrés had spent 47 hours on the motorway – the family got its first bit of good news in days. Negative test in hand, he had been cleared to cross into France. Another 25 hours or so of driving and he would be home. “We’re waiting for this nightmare to end,” said his wife. “I just want to see him.”
Thousands of other heavy goods vehicles managed to cross the Channel on Friday, bringing an end to the dystopian scenes of miles of stalled lorries and vast parking lots littered with trucks that had played out across parts of southern England.
As he launched into the long drive home, Andrés wondered if these images might have been precisely the point. “I’m not convinced this was all only about the variant. Even at the height of the pandemic we were coming and going and circulating without any problems,” he said. “But all of this happened at the same time that the UK was in negotiations with the EU.”
Echoing a view expressed by other lorry drivers, he suspected that the border closure may have been partly prompted by a desire to reinforce to the UK how disruptive it would have been to leave the EU single market and customs union without a deal.
“I don’t know if politics were at play,” said Andrés. “But whatever it was, the lorry drivers were the ones who ended up paying for it.”
Many more lorries were allowed to cross the Channel yesterday, but hauliers warn: “It’s not over yet”. Congestion continued to ease at the Port of Dover and Eurotunnel, but more who held off leaving for the border over the festive period are expected to join the queue soon. Duncan Buchanan, policy director at the Road Haulage Association said: “At the moment, it’s just a case of keep going because we need to make sure we can get as many people out as possible.”