Published: 08:08, 22 December 2020
| Updated: 19:13, 22 December 2020
The travel ban on anyone from the UK going to France will be lifted at midnight tonight but details of the deal around testing has not been revealed yet.
The EU has recommended lifting the travel ban causing chaos in Kent, while one MP has warned the longer the closure lasts the greater the risk of transmission.
More than 1,000 lorries remain stranded in Kent amid fears the new coronavirus strain is 'out of control'.
Even if the stalemate is broken and France follows the EU's advice it will take many hours to clear the backlog.
The EU's executive branch advised the ban should be lifted to maintain trade routes.
All freight and passenger traffic has been banned from entering France with hauliers redirected to a makeshift lorry park at Manston Airport and plans being drawn up to test drivers before they cross the Channel in a mass programme co-ordinated by the military.
It is thought a deal is inching closer and that swabbing truckers at the airport site may be the way forward.
More than 1,000 HGVs are parked in the county, filling laybys and roadsides as well as the 4,000-capacity airport site.
There was confusion last night after Boris Johnson said at a Downing Street press briefing the number of lorries waiting on the M20 had been reduced from 500 to 170, but Highways England later said Kent Police had told them there were 900 lorries parked on the motorway as of 6pm.
It appears to have increased again since as frustrated drivers head towards the port in the hope it will reopen.
Home Secretary Priti Patel said it "was in both countries interests" to get to a solution soon.
Hundreds of lorries are also sat on the M20 after Operation Brock went live, while there were delays of 45 minutes on the A2 at Lydden as a result of HGVs parked along the route.
The coastguard was today seen driving down the M20 in between rows of queueing lorries and handing out bottled water.
The coastguard hands out water on the M20
Kent County Council, with the help of Kent Resilience Forum agencies, distributed snacks and drinking water yesterday ahead of drivers being able to access welfare facilities at Manston as part Operation Brock planning.
The authority stressed the importance of hauliers avoiding the county.
At Dover this morning drivers were bursting with frustration and honking horns as they approach the port only to be sent packing.
The community in the town is rallying round to come to the aid of drivers stuck on the coast.
But the town's MP Natalie Elphicke is concerned.
She said: "Our community spirit and generosity is one of our great strengths. However, we are ourselves in Tier 4 and must take exceptional care not to raise the virus transmission risk to drivers at this time.
“There is support available to drivers in the designated routes and lorry parks. Drivers trying to get to France should not enter Kent at all at the moment and if they do, they should be sticking to the supported routes. This will also help them to get the right information and enable better control of the traffic flows when the border re-opens.”
Regarding the ongoing situation she added: “The longer the French border is closed, the longer it will take to clear the backlog and the less likely it is that European drivers will be home for Christmas.
“As every hour passes, drivers are leaving their lorries, collecting in groups near the port and wandering around Dover town. This will increase not reduce the risk of transmission if this continues, so it is vital that the French re-open the border without delay.”
Drivers vent their frustrations at Dover
Doug Bannister, head of the Port of Dover, said in normal conditions 4,500 lorries could be cleared in 12 hours.
However these were extreme circumstances and it could take longer depending on whether the French authorities insist on testing for lorry drivers.
He added: "We are in a rather extreme circumstances now. This situation is different because it does depend on the protocols which are going to be insisted upon to let the traffic start again."
And KCC leader Roger Gough warned hauliers may face a long wait to get off the M20 even if the French authorities lift a blockade on travel.
“I would in any case caution that if we get to that point, unblocking it could be at least as difficult in the short run as what we have at the moment...that would have to be carefully managed. It is not going to happen overnight," he said.
Meanwhile, it has emerged movable barrier Operation Brock could not be implemented at the weekend because it was not available.
Cllr Roger Gough said: “The biggest difference at the moment is that Operation Brock was not triggered at the start of this, it was Operation Stack and that is because the quick movable barrier, which is part of the process of getting traffic moving was not out; we tested it the weekend before last week but it was not operational because the plan had been to hold it back for the week between Christmas and New Year in the interests of allowing traffic to flow throughout Kent.”
He also warned that if testing was demanded by the French authorities as part of its condition for lifting the blockade, that could take time.
“That [testing] could be part of what the French government proposes. It would make a huge difference but it would depend on what form of testing. We have to be realistic; this is not going to be a very quick fix.We will continue to lobby government on the areas that we think where the pattern of support [of government] for local businesses does not match the pattern of support in the Kent economy.”
Due to last for an initial 48 hours, the ban was announced on Sunday evening and is set to end at 11pm.
Just after 10am yesterday the French government announced freight would be able to begin moving between the countries again "in the next few hours".
But as of this morning the border remains shut and Operation Brock - the movable barrier which allows for traffic to travel both ways on the M20 - went live at 8am.
No announcements have been made since but it has been suggested proposals could see France sending health workers to conduct testing at ports.
Government sources said last night discussions with the French government were “ongoing” after the PM said on Monday evening the two countries were working “to unblock the flow of trade as fast as possible”.
The BBC reported plans to reopen the border will come into effect from Wednesday, citing French Europe Minister Clement Beaune.
At the Downing Street news conference chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance said: “The evidence on this virus is that it spreads easily, it’s more transmissible, we absolutely need to make sure we have the right level of restrictions in place.
“I think it is likely that this will grow in numbers of the variant across the country and I think it’s likely, therefore, that measures will need to be increased in some places, in due course, not reduced.”
The New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag) met again on Monday to consider the new variant and said, while it does not appear to alter the course of the disease, it does spread more easily.
“That again reinforces the point that it’s important to get ahead of this and to make sure that the tiering system is adequate to stop things going, and not to watch it and react in retrospect,” Sir Patrick said.
Given the “inevitable mixing” over Christmas “I think there will be some increases in numbers over the next few weeks”, he added.
The closure of cross-Channel routes alarmed businesses, including those relying on the trouble-free passage of produce into the UK, as well as holidaymakers looking to leave for the continent – all with the added complication of the end of the Brexit transition period on December 31.
Andrew Opie, director of food and sustainability at the British Retail Consortium, said the “borders really need to be running pretty much freely from tomorrow to assure us that there won’t be any disruption”.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “There is a problem potentially directly after Christmas and that is really in fresh produce, so we’re talking here about things like salad, vegetables, fresh fruit, of which the vast majority come from Europe at this time.
“The problem actually is empty lorries, so the empty lorries which are now stuck in Kent, they need to get back to places like Spain to pick up the next consignment of raspberries and strawberries and they need to get back within the next day or so, otherwise we will see disruption.”
He added: “As long as it can be cleared today, there’ll be minimal impact for consumers – remember the shops are shut on Christmas Day which takes one day of buying out of the equation, but those lorries that are stuck in Kent, they do need to get back within the next day.”
Meanwhile the border closure has already significantly impacted the business of one Kent food company.
Plamil Foods, based in Folkestone, has been told by its hauliers that deliveries across to Europe will not take place until January 4.
But many of their European clients had already stipulated that orders would be cancelled if they were not completed before the deadline of the Brexit transition period on December 31.
Adrian Ling, managing director of the company, said: "It's total chaos, both for incoming and outgoing goods.
"Many of the goods that were ordered specifically before Christmas, and particularly before Brexit, now these orders won't even possibly be dispatched until January.
"We're also finding even minor ingredients that are due into us are stuck in Rotterdam.
"That has implications on orders going out and we have an immense complicated issue trying to assess everything that's going on hour by hour."
The travel ban came a day after Kent and much of the rest of the UK was plunged into Tier 4 restrictions.
Transport secretary Grant Shapps said yesterday morning 6,000 lorries would be stranded in Kent throughout the day but 32,000 unaccompanied containers would continue to flow.
He said: "Quite often you get disruption on this short route you just don't notice it.
"In the very short term, over the next day or two, this does not have a particularly big impact."
He was working with his French counterpart to get the issue sorted as soon as possible, he added, and guaranteed that vaccine delivery will not be impacted by the hold ups as it enters the country in unaccompanied containers.
But a logistics rep from Sittingbourne disputed Mr Shapps' claim.
Graham Pask, south east area manager for the Road Haulage Association, told KentOnline: "I definitely question that. It's probably nearer 20%, because there was a time we had facilities in Dover for unaccompanied trailers, but the actual parking area for unaccompanied trailers is very small now.
"It certainly isn't the 80% they're talking about, we're talking upwards of 7,000 trucks per day coming across the Channel - there's no way that 80% of that is unaccompanied. I think those figures are flawed."
Mr Shapps added the government would "absolutely not" extend the Brexit transition period in response to the current situation - Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has called for a delay on the January 1 date.
MP for Dover Natalie Elphicke blasted the French for closing the port off.
She said: "The French Government’s decision to close the border at no notice was unnecessary, unhelpful and irresponsible.
"It has caused serious traffic congestion at a time when traffic flows were already high, with Christmas and over-stocking causing congestion at a number of ports ahead of the end of the Transition Period. The longer that this goes on, the longer it will take to unwind, meaning that there could be queues past Christmas unless the French re-open the border soon.
“The ferry and road haulage industries have worked hand-in-glove with the UK and French authorities over many months to ensure that goods and medicines can transit securely and safely during the pandemic. There was simply no need to close the border, a simple conversation about virus management would been the right way forward. The French Government should immediately reverse its decision and open up the border for trade again.
“Dover is no stranger to occasional traffic disruption, often caused by French actions. I would like to thank Kent County Council, the Highways Agency and Kent Police for working overnight to put in place Operation Stack, urgently standing up Operation Brock, and activating Manston and other facilities, to manage this situation. I will continue to work closely with them, and the Port of Dover, to minimise the traffic disruption to local residents."
Operation Stack was activated between junctions 8 for Maidstone East and junction 11 for Westenhanger.
Stack is the name given to the operation to close parts of the M20 to queue lorries that are travelling towards the continent, to avoid causing gridlock across Kent’s road network.
All drivers have been urged to avoid Dover. Highways England said it was working closely with Kent Police and Kent County Council to minimise disruption.
Non-freight traffic is being filtered at the first junction that Operation Stack is implemented from and diverted onto the A20 to rejoin the M20 in front of the Operation Stack queue.
The diversion is A20 from Hollingbourne to Ashford. Drivers should follow the ‘S’ on road signs along Templar Way and Chart Road, Brookfield Road, Beaver Lane, Kingsnorth Road, Norman Road, A2042 Romney Marsh Road, A2070 Bad Munstereifel Road, A2070 Link Road to M20 J10A, then A20 through Sellindge to M20 J11.
MP for Folkestone and Hythe Damian Collins has suggested bringing forward the installation of the quick moveable barrier on the M20.
He said: "Operation Stack is in place and will cause severe delays to coastbound journeys using the M20 and A20.
"This is as a result of the French Government closing the border for 48 hours in response to Covid levels in the UK.
"I've been discussing with Transport Ministers bringing forward by a week the installation of the quick moveable barrier on the M20 to allow two way flow of traffic on the London bound carriageway of the motorway.
"Manston Airport will also be used to hold lorries off road."
The Department for Transport got Manston ready for use. It can accommodate up to 4,000 lorries.
A special development order is in place allowing it to be used as part of Operation Fennel, put in place to deal with cross-border delays in Dover and Folkestone.
The order allows lorries to be held there for up to 48 hours.
The scheme also involves the use of the A299 and the A256 to manage HGVs if congestion builds up too much on the M20, when disruption stops crossings to the continent.
Thanet District Council has always been opposed to the Manston plan due to the "disproportionate burden" it would cause on the district.
At a recent meeting, councillors outlined their concerns which include roads becoming heavily congested, the blocking of major routes to the QEQM hospital and William Harvey, and also the overwhelming pressure on health services should there be a Covid-19 outbreak at the lorry park.
At the start of the travel ban Prime Minister Jean Castex tweeted: "Given the new health risk, and pending its assessment, all flows of people from the United Kingdom to France are suspended from midnight tonight, for 48 hours, and for all means of transport."
Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium, Austria, Ireland and Bulgaria are among 40 countries that have also announced restrictions on UK travel.
The government's biggest fear is that supplies of food and even the COVID vaccine could be hit because French hauliers will not travel to the UK if they cannot return home.
A Number 10 spokesperson said this morning's talks are "to discuss the situation regarding international travel, in particular the steady flow of freight into and out of the UK", adding: "Further meetings are happening... to ensure robust plans are in place."
KentOnline will bring you breaking travel news as it happens along with regular traffic updates on kmfm.
Lorries queue on the M20