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Everything you need to know as Bank Holiday weekend traffic heading for Eurotunnel and Port of Dover set to flood Kent’s roads

Families will be gearing up for the half-term getaway, and once again all eyes will be on the cross-Channel ports as holidaymakers head for the continent – will it be smooth sailing or will gridlock snarl up this corner of Kent?

Holiday traffic chaos has become a recurring theme at the border since tourism came roaring back post-pandemic. Here Rhys Griffiths looks at why the issues arise, and what is being done to prevent a repeat this weekend.

Queues at the Port of Dover last summer
Queues at the Port of Dover last summer

Rewind to the start of the school summer holidays in July last year, and thousands of people were making their way to France and onwards for a well-earned break. Except for many the holiday could not begin as they were caught up in huge queues at the border, trying in vain to board ferries and Eurotunnel trains in Dover and Folkestone respectively.

Horror stories of hours and hours spent in stationary traffic were abundant. Blame was being thrown in multiple directions – Brexit, some said, while others pointed the finger at the French staffing of their juxtaposed border on UK soil.

For people living in east Kent it meant gridlocked local roads, as traffic stacked up and the lines of vehicles waiting to cross the Channel stretched for miles out of the Port of Dover and the Channel Tunnel terminal. The question now, as we approach what the RAC believes could be the busiest late May Bank Holiday on the roads since before the pandemic, is whether we are set for a repeat as this weekend’s getaway begins.

Why have there been such dramatic queues at the border?

Before we dive into the more controversial arguments, let us look at the simple facts of travel across the French border which – thanks to long-standing agreement between London and Paris – is situated here in Kent.

As the UK is not part of the Schengen free-travel zone, which allows people to travel without passport checks between many European countries, those travelling from Kent across the Channel need to have their documents checked. This requires French border officers from the Police aux Frontières to process all those passing across the border.

Thousands will pass through the Port of Dover at half term
Thousands will pass through the Port of Dover at half term

The impact of these checks can be calculated by a simple equation of time taken per passenger multiplied by the volume of passengers travelling. While the UK remained part of the European Union, these checks were often cursory. Border guards would often take a brief glance at passports before waving people through. The process was, if not non-existent, as light-touch as it could be.

This all changed once we left the European bloc. Now citizens of a ‘third country’, British travellers face a more rigorous set of checks – culminating in the so-called ‘wet stamping’ of passports to register entry to the Schengen zone. While for each individual the process may only last a few moments longer, when multiplied by thousands of vehicles this means the flow of traffic across the frontier is slower than had previously been the case.

Does this mean Brexit is to blame for delays at the ports?

Here’s where the whole issue becomes thornier. Plenty of commentators were quick to jump on the scenes of thousands of vehicles queuing at the border as evidence of the negative impact of our decision to quit the European Union. By choosing to become a ‘third country’ we had opted to make travel into the bloc that little bit more complicated – so we should not be surprised if this has a detrimental effect on Brits travelling abroad.

But others have been quick to dismiss Brexit as the culprit. “French border officers didn’t turn up for work at the passport controls as needed,” Dover MP Natalie Elphicke said at the height of July’s chaos. “This has caused massive delays. It’s vital that the French passport controls are fully staffed during this peak holiday period."

When there was a repeat at the Port of Dover back in April, Home Secretary Suella Braverman was also quick to reject suggestions that Brexit was to blame. Ms Braverman told Sky News it would not be fair to view the delays as “an adverse effect of Brexit”. She said: “What I would say is at acute times when there is a lot of pressure crossing the Channel, whether that’s on the tunnel or ferries, then I think that there’s always going to be a back-up and I just urge everybody to be a bit patient while the ferry companies work their way through the backlog.”

Natalie Elphicke MP and Doug Bannister at the Port of Dover
Natalie Elphicke MP and Doug Bannister at the Port of Dover

On balance it is probably fair to say that yes, Brexit has had an impact. But given the nature of juxtaposed controls on British soil, we are still at the mercy of the French operating their border at full capacity. It does not take much to put border crossings, particularly the busy Port of Dover, under strain.

So what are port bosses doing to reduce the likelihood of delays this half-term?

Dover Harbour Board has told KentOnline measures are being taken, particularly for coaches, to better manage queues at the Port of Dover this weekend, with extra border control booths and additional staffing at the French border. One focus will be on trying to better manage the flow of traffic into the port itself, where there is limited space to process each vehicle at peak times.

Port chief executive Doug Bannister said: “We work hard all year round to try to manage traffic flows to reduce the impact on the town from our busy port operations. At peak times, this can be challenging.

“We are continually looking at ways to improve border facilities and traffic management. It will be a busy period again this weekend, but we are working hard with operators, the Kent Resilience Forum, French border control and the Department of Transport to seek to reduce the impact and period of traffic congestion during expected peak times.”

Both holidaymakers and locals alike will be eager to see if the situation can be better managed to prevent the scenes of chaos witnessed during school holiday getaways earlier this year and last summer. Following a meeting with Mr Bannister, Dover’s MP said: “It is clear that there has been a lot of work undertaken by the port to try to reduce the expected impact on Dover town. I will be keeping a very close eye on how these arrangements work this weekend.”

Will these lengthy delays at the border eventually be a thing of the past?

"We want people to recognise that this year's problems are standard practice. This is the new normal.” This was the worrying view of one cross-Channel industry insider when things broke down so badly last summer. And the repeat of issues at the border in subsequent peak holiday periods suggests they had a point.

Queues at the Port of Dover in July let to gridlock on local roads
Queues at the Port of Dover in July let to gridlock on local roads

Our new status as a ‘third country’ means there will be no return to the breezy passport checks of years gone by. The fear now is that new border regulations introduced by the European Union could even, in the short term, make things worse.

The bloc has been long planning to introduce a new system for managing movements across its borders. The proposed Entry/Exit System (EES) has been designed to register entry and exit data of non-EU nationals – which now includes the British – when they cross an external border. Drawn up while we were still members, the rules require the gathering of biometric data – fingerprints scanned, photographs taken – in the presence of a border officer.

Thankfully, this new system has been repeatedly delayed. But when it does come into force there are fears it will, initially at least, lead to even greater delays at border crossings, including those here in Kent.

"It should, when it's in place, speed up the processes at the border," our industry insider said. "However there is a very, very heavy manual face-to-face process to enrol in EES and it has to be done at the first point of entry to the EU, which means during the journey and which, in the case of the short-strait with juxtaposed controls, means in Kent.

"Everybody turning up and all trying to get away for the holidays for the first time will not just have to go through passport control, but they will also have to go through an enrolment phase and that enrolment phase which will take several minutes, potentially. The manual process of acquiring that data is very, very clunky and puts the travel experience at risk when it's first introduced.”

As we touched on earlier, the time taken to process each vehicle is a vital part of the equation when it comes to determining the flow of traffic through the Port of Dover and the Channel Tunnel. Any processes that make this more laborious, even by a few minutes each time, will evidently mean it takes longer for travellers to pass through – leading to the queues of traffic which have plagued us at peak times in the past.

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