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Why biometric border rules at Port of Dover and Eurotunnel mean Kent travel chaos could get even worse

For thousands of holidaymakers the roads of Kent became a highway to hell as lengthy delays at the cross-Channel ports threw the start of the summer getaway into chaos.

But industry figures fear the county could face far worse disruption next year when new biometric border rules are due to come into force, as reporter Rhys Griffiths explains.

The queues at the Port of Dover on Friday, July 22. Picture: Barry Goodwin
The queues at the Port of Dover on Friday, July 22. Picture: Barry Goodwin

The stories from the snarled-up roads around Folkestone and Dover painted a picture of misery and frustration for families heading off for a holiday on the continent.

Hours spent in sweltering cars, traffic barely moving. Children growing increasingly tetchy on the back seat, parents soon approaching the end of their tether.

For the Port of Dover and Eurotunnel, the first weekend after schools break up for the summer is always something of a challenge.

A lot of people, making the same short crossing of the Channel, at exactly the same time. If you've ever sat on the White Cliffs above the Eastern Docks and watched the ebb and flow of traffic through the port, you'll have some concept of the elaborate choreography required to keep cars and coaches, trucks and trailers, flowing smoothly on and off ferries to France.

However, such is the intricacy of the operation, it takes very little for this well-rehearsed dance to fall apart. And the impact on the people of Kent is felt instantly.

'France is not responsible for Brexit'

What started as a little congestion on local roads on the morning of July 22 took very little time at all to spiral into a "critical incident" dominating the national headlines and drawing attention from beyond these shores.

Traffic at the Eastern Docks on the first day of the summer getaway. Picture: Barry Goodwin
Traffic at the Eastern Docks on the first day of the summer getaway. Picture: Barry Goodwin

The summer getaway was in full swing, with a wave of tourist traffic joining the more regular flows of freight seeking to cross the Channel by ferry from Dover and train from Folkestone.

But soon queues at the docks and the Tunnel terminal grew to the point that the local road network could simply not cope.

Drivers were forced to abandon cars on the commute and continue on foot, bus firms simply gave up running some routes, many people gave up on planned journeys entirely and just stayed at home.

The recriminations began almost immediately. Initial reaction on the British side of the 'short straits' - as the crossing between Kent and northern France is known in the industry - pinned the blame on a lack of French border officers.

This line stuck among sections of the press and the political class, with both the Government and Kent's Conservative MPs happy to lay the blame squarely with the Gallic frontier force.

Nonsense, the French - and a sympathetic section of the British commentariat - retorted.

The delays were simply a natural conclusion of our exit from the European Union.

As citizens of a 'third country' the British are now subject to more laborious border formalities when entering the bloc. And when processing the volume traffic seen in peak holiday periods, even a few seconds more for each car and lorry soon compounds to create ever growing delays.

The truth is this: whether French short-staffing, or Brexit bureaucracy, it is incredibly easy for things to go wrong on the short straits and to go wrong very quickly indeed.

Highway to hell

Paul Stafford, his partner and their two sons set off from their home in Thanet at 7am on Saturday, July 23, en route to Disneyland Paris via the Eurotunnel at Folkestone.

Paul Stafford, his partner Alison and their two sons were stuck in traffic leading towards the Channel Tunnel at Folkestone at the start of the summer holidays in July 2022. Picture: Paul Stafford
Paul Stafford, his partner Alison and their two sons were stuck in traffic leading towards the Channel Tunnel at Folkestone at the start of the summer holidays in July 2022. Picture: Paul Stafford

"It was really quick to get to the back of the queue," the 60-year-old NHS worker said. "It was a whizz of a journey and we just hit brick wall."

Aware of the disruption the day before, the family had allowed five hours between leaving Minster and the scheduled departure of their train. Shortly before 8am, less than a mile from the terminal, they came to a halt.

"There was something of a Blitz spirit," he said.

The family spent 16 hours inching forward in traffic, bonding with those stuck around them, driving nose-to-tail to try and stop queue-jumpers cutting in ahead.

"The lads got bored, we didn't have any food, so Alison walked along the motorway to Tesco and bought stuff back, there were some kids playing ball on the motorway.

"There was lots of talking between people, trying to find out what was happening, but there wasn't much information. It was frustrating."

The queues on the Eurotunnel slip-road at junction 11A on the M20. Picture: Paul Stafford
The queues on the Eurotunnel slip-road at junction 11A on the M20. Picture: Paul Stafford

After finally reaching the French border controls at around midnight, the family found the process to be relatively simple.

Their passports were scanned and stamped within a minute, but Mr Stafford said that was still a lot longer than would have been the case in the days before Brexit.

"When I have been through before sometimes they would glance at the passports, sometimes they would wave you through.

"This time they took them and swiped them through their little reader, we were there less than a minute, but I do appreciate that whereas before it might be 10 seconds, that's another 50 seconds per car, multiply that out and you have got a queue."

Eventually, almost 24 hours after leaving home, the Stafford family were able to depart on a Shuttle to France, their holiday one day shorter than they had expected.

Taking back control

"We want people to recognise that this year's problems are standard practise. This is the new normal," one short-strait insider of many years experience told us.

As the queues shortened and the roads began flowing freely following the first weekend of the holidays, we sought out figures from within the cross-Channel industry to share their views on what had happened.

The French were blamed for delays over the first weekend of the summer holidays. Picture: Gareth Fuller/PA
The French were blamed for delays over the first weekend of the summer holidays. Picture: Gareth Fuller/PA

The consensus was clear. Although no one seemed keen to mention Brexit by name, the fact is that increased border friction means longer border checks that lead to greater congestion at ports and on our roads.

There is also palpable concern that the disruption seen in Kent this summer is only a foretaste of what is to come.

Fears centre on the forthcoming implementation of a new border regime with a most innocuous name - but the potential to leave the free flow of goods and people across the Channel in meltdown.

The EU's proposed Entry/Exit System (EES) has been established to register entry and exit data of non-EU nationals - which now includes the British - when they cross an external border of the continental bloc.

Drawn up while we were still members, the laws require the gathering of biometric data - fingerprints scanned, photographs taken - in the presence of an officer when crossing the border.

Since the Treaty of Le Touquet agreed between London and Paris allows for the French border to be placed in the UK - the so-called juxtaposed controls - this means the data required under EES must be gathered on our side of the Channel. To say this is of concern for the various authorities here in Kent would be an understatement.

Queues at the Port of Dover 60 years ago this month, with cars and caravans pictured waiting to board ferries in August. 1962. Picture: Ray Warner Ltd
Queues at the Port of Dover 60 years ago this month, with cars and caravans pictured waiting to board ferries in August. 1962. Picture: Ray Warner Ltd

"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 to through passport control next year, but they will also have to go through an enrolment phase and that enrolment phase 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. The fact that this is just not a practical system in a road vehicle environment and therefore there's a lot of work to be done to make it suitable for purpose."

What is giving the authorities - highways, the Dover Harbour Board, Eurotunnel, Kent Police - sleepless nights are those two words: several minutes.

If the "new normal" of stamping of passports has been enough to bring the county's roads to a standstill, the fear is even lengthier checks to enrol biometric data for every non-EU man, woman and child crossing to France will cause chaos on a scale previously unimaginable.

The introduction of EES has been delayed several times and now will not be implemented until 2023 at the earliest. But time is running out to find a solution that will keep the cross-Channel routes open and flowing freely.

Squaring the circle

Tim Reardon was the man tasked by Dover Harbour Board with managing the Port of Dover's response to Brexit and the inevitable changes brought about by our exit from the European Union.

Tim Reardon from the Port of Dover. Picture: Dover Harbour Board
Tim Reardon from the Port of Dover. Picture: Dover Harbour Board

When we speak about the forthcoming introduction of EES, he speaks with the calmness and clarity of a man who is well across his brief.

What he cannot disguise, however, is the concern about what further border friction - second and minutes added to every border check - will mean for Dover and Kent as a whole.

These are concerns he has been airing in public for some time, too.

In November he told the House of Lords Justice and Home Affairs Committee: "There is no way yet of doing a biometric control on a vehicle without getting everyone out of the vehicle.

"That's the one thing on our site which cannot happen because you're in the middle of live traffic.

"It would be equivalent to asking people to get out of their car at a motorway toll booth. It's fundamentally unsafe and it can't happen.

"So the challenge is to find a way of squaring that circle and matching those two incompatible concepts."

Nine months on, it does not appear there has been much progress in making that circle square.

Although the outline of the problem is well understood by those involved, there is a fundamental issue of geography which means a solution feels as out of reach as ever.

The flow of goods and people between the UK and continent is focused on Folkestone and Dover because this is the shortest - and therefore quickest - route between the two.

The Dover TAP queue along the A20 at Dover, photographed from Aycliffe towards the port
The Dover TAP queue along the A20 at Dover, photographed from Aycliffe towards the port

Both the Eurotunnel terminal at Folkestone and the Eastern Docks at Dover sit in confined spaces at the foot of a ridge of chalk hills which reach the sea to form the iconic White Cliffs.

Whereas in Calais it is quite possible to extend the footprint of the port to accommodate extra border posts and lanes to park queuing vehicles, here no such possibility exists. When traffic backs up from the Kent ports, it does so on the county's road network.

The lack of space at the UK ports also means there is little conceivable option for having travellers leave vehicles to enrol their biometric data - which the authorities say would simply be too dangerous.

"The two things that the e-gate philosophy is predicated on simply don't apply at our terminal..."

Mr Reardon said: "Both sites are geographically constrained but the real challenge, the fundamental challenge with the EES regime, is that it's designed and written for pedestrian travellers at airports.

"The core of the system is the capturing of everybody's biometric data and then the checking of that biometric data when the person crosses the frontier. The technical concept that people have in mind is an e-gate.

"We know at airports and the Eurostar terminal at St Pancras they work well in the context of foot passenger traffic, but they're predicated on everybody passing through the frontier as a pedestrian and everybody passing through the frontier one at a time.

"The way people travel through the Port of Dover and on most other road traffic frontiers is in vehicles and in groups in those vehicles.

"So the two things that the e-gate philosophy is predicated on simply don't apply at our terminal.

"So the question is how to square the circle between a regime designed for pedestrians at airports and the reality where people pass through the frontier in vehicles in groups."

Technology to the rescue?

In the years since Britain voted to leave the EU and we departed from the bloc, technology has always been hailed as a saviour whenever seemingly intractable issues thrown up by our exit have come to light.

There is, as one would expect, hope in some quarters that tech would be the answer to easing the impact of the introduction of EES at the juxtaposed controls.

Traffic was stuck for hours at Eurotunnel at the start of the summer holidays. Picture: Paul Stafford
Traffic was stuck for hours at Eurotunnel at the start of the summer holidays. Picture: Paul Stafford

One idea apparently being looking at by the French border force, the Police aux Frontières, is the use of tablets to allow travellers to submit their biometrics while remaining inside their vehicles.

"The French frontier police are engaging in it and they are addressing themselves to the issue very professionally," Mr Reardon said.

"They have recognised that it's not acceptable to get people out of cars or lorries or minibuses passing through our site or the Channel Tunnel site.

"We haven't seen these tablets because they've not been brought for demonstration anywhere outside France yet.

"The first question is 'does it work' and the second question is 'how long does it take', because as we saw last weekend the key to keeping the port running smoothly, and people actually getting away on their holidays, is the transaction time at the checkpoint.

"Anything that materially prolongs the transaction time of a vehicle at the checkpoint will slow up the flow. And the consequences of slowing the flow at a busy weekend is what we saw last weekend."

The truth is that for both the Port of Dover and Eurotunnel much of the implementation of the new system is simply beyond their control.

Lorries queueing at Eurotunnel on Monday, July 25, as the traffic chaos eased. Picture: Barry Goodwin
Lorries queueing at Eurotunnel on Monday, July 25, as the traffic chaos eased. Picture: Barry Goodwin

Although they believe solutions are possible, there will need to be political will to make them happen.

"The French frontier police are in Dover not as our guests, they are here as guests of the UK government," Mr Reardon said.

"So the correct counter-party for the French government to discuss their plans with is actually the UK government that invited them to be here in the first place.

"It's a perfectly soluble problem provided there's the political will to solve it, which means rewriting the law, which is fine because the law was written by committees of people in the first place so the same committee can rewrite it if they acknowledge it's wrong and says something inappropriate for the context.

"That's why we're engaging with the UK government, to alert them to the the fact that they need to push for it to be rewritten."

Prisoners of geography

When a crisis hits Kent, it comes down to the Kent Resilience Forum to coordinate the multi-agency response involving the likes of Kent County Council, Kent Police, the fire service and the NHS.

When a major incident affects the Channel ports, it has certain measures it can put in place - such as Operation Brock on the M20 and the Dover TAP on the A20 - to manage the situation.

Toby Howe, senior highways manager for Kent County Council
Toby Howe, senior highways manager for Kent County Council

But, as tactical lead Toby Howe explained, its toolbox is limited and factors unique to Kent make it challenging to deliver a comprehensive solution to the issues facing the short strait crossing when border friction leads to delays.

"Ultimately the ramification for Kent, for the businesses and communities of Kent, is what we had on Saturday when we had to use so much of the road network to hold vehicles.

"So that then really impacts the rest of Kent. A strategic road through Kent should never be used as a lorry park, but unfortunately that is what is in our armoury to use at the moment.

"One thing that would really help is other facilities to hold those vehicles off-road, in a safe environment with full facilities, so that all of that could be off-road enabling the roads to be used for what they should be."

So the most obvious answer to avoid a repeat of the gridlock seen this summer is to build more lorry parks?

"It is ultimately," Mr Howe said. "The negative of such a thing is that of course nobody wants a big lorry park next door.

"Nobody wants that, but everybody needs it.

"I do understand all the problems but unfortunately what I have in my armoury to be able to use as tactical lead simply isn't enough these days with the problems that are occurring."

And the question of the role of Brexit in causing delays at the border?

"If we've got to do biometric testing as well that's going to add more time..."

"Everybody knows there have always been queues at the Port of Dover when it's a really busy time. We had problems back in 2016 when French officials didn't turn up and we had queues of tourists for many hours between Folkestone and Dover on the A20.

"But that problem is now totally exaggerated by the fact that there are more checks at the port.

"Whereas before we used the wave our passports to the French officials, they'd smile and we would drive through, now they've got to take those passports, they've got to inspect them, they've got to look at each of us in the car and then they've got to stamp them.

"Of course if you then multiply that by 10,000 tourists there are going to be delays. There's no doubt about that.

"If we've got to do biometric testing as well that's going to add more time. Any more time we add to those checks is only going to make the queues longer, isn't it? It's not rocket science.

"They are fortunate in France that at Coquelles [the French Eurotunnel terminal] and at Calais they have a lot more space. They can expand and they can add more [passport] booths accordingly.

"Eurotunnel at Folkestone and the Port of Dover simply cannot do that."

Mr Howe said progress has been made in making Whitehall realise that the issues facing the county because of delays at the border is not simply a Kent problem, but a national one too.

John Keefe director of public affairs at Eurotunnel operator Getlink
John Keefe director of public affairs at Eurotunnel operator Getlink

We approached the Department for Transport to ask about preparations for the introduction of EES at Kent's juxtaposed controls and were directed to the Home Office, whose response we await.

John Keefe, director of public affairs at Eurotunnel operator Getlink, said: "I think what we've seen this last weekend is just a foretaste of what's to come in travel terms, especially with the planned introduction of EES."

Another exasperated source, who wished to remain anonymous, described the ongoing debate about the introduction of the new border checks as having "no basis in reality".

They told us the prospect of EES in its current form "is a real problem" for the movement of goods and people between Kent and the continent, and therefore for our coastal communities in particular.

Unhappily it appears an acceptable solution - a squaring of the circle - remains as elusive as ever.

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