Thousands of lorry drivers forced to spend Christmas in their cabs have crossed the Channel after having coronavirus tests, the UK government has announced.
Drivers can only cross to France if they have a negative Covid-19 test, helping to clear the backlog caused when borders were shut in response to the new variant of the virus being detected in southern England last week.
The transport secretary, Grant Shapps, said today that more than 4,500 heavy goods vehicles travelled across the Channel after having been parked up on roads and in lorry parks around the south coast ports.
Shapps thanked hauliers for their patience and “everyone on the ground working tirelessly to help after the French border was suddenly closed”. “Over 10,000 tests have taken place & over 4,500 HGVs are back over the Channel,” he tweeted.
A further 800 British military personnel were sent to Kent to help the lorry drivers.
The government has been trying to rapidly increase testing to clear the backlog after French authorities reopened the border on Wednesday morning. Traffic was moving smoothly through the port on Friday, with French firefighters also drafted in to assist the military in testing drivers for coronavirus.
The Polish military’s Territorial Defence Force arrived later in the day to help with testing and food distribution, the country’s UK embassy said. They codenamed their operation “Zumbach”, after the famous Polish Second World War second world war pilot Jan Zumbach, who fought for the allies in the Battle of Britain, the embassy said.
The Port of Dover said 1,445 HGVs and 738 cars had left on Thursday. On Friday evening, more than 3,160 hauliers were still waiting to cross the Channel.
The Port of Dover said ferries had no set timetable for departures, but would look to leave with the maximum number of vehicles on board.
Germany’s ambassador to the UK, Andreas Michaelis, said some German hauliers had managed to make it home for Christmas, while others remained in Kent.
Good news from Dover: Some of the German lorry drivers we’ve been in touch with are on their way home or at home already. Others sadly remain stuck. I sincerely hope things will start moving for them soon. This is a difficult Christmas. Our thoughts are with them. pic.twitter.com/K1LfIXI0TY
— Andreas Michaelis (@GermanAmbUK) December 25, 2020
Some had spent nearly a week stranded due to the diplomatic impasse that emerged when French authorities closed the border on Sunday in an attempt to stop the spread of the new coronavirus variant discovered in the UK.
They agreed to relax the measure from Wednesday morning, but insisted that anyone wishing to cross the Channel produce a negative test result received within the previous 72 hours, creating a further logistical headache.
UK government ministers were able to provide only limited testing capacity, meaning fewer than 100 hauliers were able to leave via Dover on Wednesday of the 6,000 that officials estimated were waiting.
The queues formed around the port town, at a lorry park at nearby Manston airfield and on the M20.
Southeastern Railway and Network Rail arranged for food to be delivered to lorry drivers stuck on the motorway, with the Salvation Army distributing the items.
The government also promised to provide hot food and drinks to stranded hauliers at Manston airfield, with Kent council and volunteer groups providing refreshments to those stuck on the M20. There are more than 250 toilets at Manston, with a further 32 portable toilets added to existing facilities already along the M20.
Duncan Buchanan, a policy director at the Road Haulage Association, said: “The most reassuring thing is that food is getting through at Manston, and I have to say a big thank-you to everyone who volunteered to help drivers stick it out in cold conditions in the days leading up to Christmas.”