Cross-Channel freight traffic resumes after drivers test negative for Covid

Heavy lorries stranded in southern England after France shut its UK borders for 48 hours over fears about a new coronavirus strain began crossing the Channel in large numbers on Thursday as drivers tested negative for Covid-19.

Getlink, which runs the Channel Tunnel ferrying lorries by rail from Folkestone to Calais, said it was carrying about 120-150 trucks per hour on Thursday and expected to take about 2,000 a day over the next three days with extra services laid on to clear the backlog. 

The UK’s Road Haulage Association had estimated that up to 10,000 lorries were stuck in England after France closed its UK borders on Sunday night in an attempt to halt the spread of the new variant of the virus that was spreading fast in south-east England. The so-called “short straits” routes across the Channel are a vital trade artery between the UK and the EU.

“We’re getting a reasonable flow through now,” said Getlink spokesperson John Keefe. “It was a bit chaotic yesterday. Now we’re almost at capacity and carrying as many as we possibly can.” 

The port of Calais, after a day in which ferries transported very few heavy goods vehicles with drivers, said that as of mid-morning on Thursday 300 trucks had disembarked since the early hours. 

France announced the reopening of its border with the UK late on Tuesday but insisted that anyone arriving from the UK had to be able to prove they had tested negative for Covid-19 within the last 72 hours, causing further delays as the NHS and military mobilised to test those waiting to cross.

Only a trickle of freight moved across the Channel on Wednesday, following chaotic scenes as authorities struggled to organise tests and angry drivers scuffled with police.

Ministers expect it will take days to get through the queue of thousands of lorries, and transport secretary Grant Shapps said the ports of Dover and Calais and the Channel Tunnel rail link would stay open throughout Christmas to help speed up the process. 

Mr Shapps said the main challenge would be making sure all the steps needed to clear the backlog were done smoothly.

“The problem is not the number of tests per day, it’s not the number of sailings per day. Ten thousand is about the number you can get through on a very busy day in Kent, and we can do that number of tests as well. The issue is just the logistics of people following the instructions,” he said. 

EU transport commissioner Adina Valean sharply criticised France on Twitter on Wednesday, saying its action “went against our recommendations and brought us back to the situation we were in in March when the supply chains were interrupted”. 

But Clément Beaune, France’s Europe minister, retorted after the lifting of the two-day shutdown of all travel from the UK: “We have exactly followed the EU recommendation (opening with tests) and are now more open than other European countries, having worked jointly with the UK authorities on this protocol.”

A team of 26 French firefighters with 10,000 tests have arrived in Dover to speed up the processing of the stranded drivers and their trucks, according to Catherine Colonna, French ambassador to London. 

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