23/12/2020 08:17 GMT | Updated 24/12/2020 09:06 GMT

Travel Ban: What Happens Now The French Border Has Reopened

Transport secretary Grant Shapps says it could take days to test all drivers for Covid-19, with estimates of 8,000 lorries stuck in Kent.

The race is on to test thousands of lorry drivers stranded in Kent for Covid-19 to allow them to cross the Channel after France reopened the border with the UK.

The development is positive but has not reduced fears of empty supermarket shelves over Christmas and a huge logistical operation is now underway to get trade and travel moving again.

Here’s the latest...

The border 

The French foreign affairs ministry said that from 11pm UK time Tuesday (midnight in France) there would be a “limited resumption of the movement of people from the UK to France subject to negative health tests sensitive to the variant”.

The statement said that a negative test result, taken less than 72 hours before the journey, is required and this can be either a “PCR or antigen test” sensitive to the new variant.

Those who can make journeys include French and EU residents, British or third-party nationals who normally live in France or the EU, as well as some other groups. 

The backlog

The Road Hauliers Association (RHA) estimates between 8,000 and 10,000 delayed lorries are now in Kent and its surrounding areas, in truck stops and at depots waiting for borders to reopen and to cross the Channel.

Truckers have been told by transport secretary Grant Shapps not to travel to the Kent region where the most heavily used rail and ferry links are.


The food situation

While the immediate crisis over the border has been averted, it will take time for things to get back to normal and Shapps said it “will take two or three days for things to be cleared”.

The week’s events have led to some panic-buying: shoppers stripped shelves in some supermarkets of turkey, toilet rolls, bread and vegetables, Reuters reports.

While the government said there was enough food for Christmas, Tesco and  Sainsbury’s both said food supplies would be affected if the disruption continued.

Tesco said it had imposed temporary buying limits on some essential products.

RHA chief executive Richard Burnett said: “There are many serious implications to this latest situation, even lateral flow Covid testing will have a massive impact on the supply chain.”

The testing

Transport secretary Grant Shapps said rapid lateral flow tests – which can give results in about 30 minutes – will be used to test HGV drivers.

NHS Test and Trace staff as well as members of the army have been sent to Kent in order to carry out the tests.

The French authorities will be carrying out similar testing on hauliers entering the UK in a programme that is set to get under way on Wednesday.

Freight lorries lined up at the front of the queue on the runway at Manston Airport, Kent, after France imposed a 48-hour ban on entry from the UK in the wake of concerns over the spread of a new strain of coronavirus.

And the accuracy of rapid lateral flow tests is currently a matter of debate – a programme of testing using this method at the University of Birmingham earlier this year has raised serious questions.

Professor Jon Deeks of the Institute of Applied Health Research at the university, told the BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Tuesday: “We probably found two students and missed 60 with this test because of its poor performance.”

“It’s an imperfect test and when you have an imperfect test you have to use it so carefully to make sure you don’t mislead people and there’s a big risk this test is going to give a lot of false reassurance which inevitably will lead to more Covid disease.”

The drivers

It’s not currently known what will happen to any driver who tests positive for Covid-19 but the the Department for Transport is expected to set out the full details of the testing programme on Wednesday.

Burnett said: “What happens to them? How is it all going to play out?

“Are they going to be tested on site or are they going to have to go somewhere else to do it? They will be unfit to drive but where will they go?

“They will be unable to quarantine with their families in Europe and what will happen to their vehicles? Who will be responsible for the deep cleaning of their cabs? And for those carrying return loads, what will happen to their cargo? This is going to be an extremely expensive exercise.”

WILLIAM EDWARDS via Getty Images
An aerial view shows lines of freight lorries and heavy goods vehicles parked on the tarmac at Manston Airport near Ramsgate, south east England on December 22.

The welfare of drivers was being raised on Tuesday as the number of lorries being diverted to and held at Manston airfield grew rapidly.

Ronald Schroeder, 52, from Hamburg, Germany, who was turned back from Dover on Sunday night, said the “social situation” for drivers is worsening due to a lack of toilet and washing facilities.

He told the PA news agency: “I am now staying in a hotel, but in front of the hotel there are thousands of people without any rooms waiting to come over the Channel crossing.

“I feel a little bit like Robinson Crusoe on an island.”

Shapps has announced a temporary relaxation of drivers’ hours for hauliers – increasing the driving limit of nine hours to 11 – to help them get through UK borders safely over the coming weeks.