Published: 17:27, 21 December 2020
| Updated: 09:04, 22 December 2020
Operation Brock is being introduced on the M20 after the number of lorries stranded in Kent decreased today.
Speaking at Downing Street a short while ago, Prime Minister Boris Johnson sought to reassure the nation that supply chains remain "robust" and people should continue to shop as normal despite the travel ban imposed by France.
This is how the barrier will be put out on the M20
He also said facilities at Manston Airport for holding lorries prior to crossing the Channel are ready to begin taking some overspill from the measures which will be in place on the M20 and in the Dover TAP on the A20.
The M20 closed at 8pm between Junction 7 for Maidstone and Junction 9 for Ashford coastbound and London-bound between Junctions 9 and 8 (Maidstone East), for the barrier to be put out, the Department for Transport confirmed.
This will create a contraflow system so the M20 can open in both directions while HGVs can queue for the port on the coastbound carriageway. The road is set to reopen at 8am.
Any HGVs arriving in Kent tonight will be diverted to Manston.
Mr Johnson said: "Last night at 11pm the French government imposed restrictions on UK freight crossing to France when accompanied by a driver, and so today I chaired a meeting of the Government's emergency Cobra committee in order to co-ordinate a UK-wide response.
"It is vital, first, to stress that these delays, which are only occurring at Dover, only affect human-handled freight, and that is only 20% of the total arriving from or departing to the European continent, which means the vast majority of food, medicines and other supplies are coming and going as normal."
The PM explained the government had been working with the Kent Resilience Forum and Highways England to manage the impact of the disruption, deploying measures worked up to mitigate issues potentially arising at the end of the Brexit transition period.
"We have been able to reduce the number of lorries waiting on the M20 from 500 to 170," he went on. "The site at Manston airfield is ready to cope with any overflow, and of course we are working with our friends across the Channel to unblock the flow of trade as fast as possible.
"We in the UK fully understand the anxieties of our friends about Covid, their anxieties about the new variant, but it is also true that we believe the risks of transmission by a solitary driver sitting alone in the cab are really very low, and so we hope to make progress as fast as we possibly can."
Mr Johnson also confirmed he had spoken directly with the French President, Emmanuel Macron, in an effort to resolve the crisis and get cross-Channel traffic moving.
Earlier today, thousands of lorries were stranded on the motorway after France closed its border amid fears the new coronavirus strain is 'out of control'.
Speaking alongside the PM earlier, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said there were now only around 170 lorries left stood on the roads of Kent this evening.
He also confirmed the Operation Brock contraflow system will be put into place in the coming hours, to begin to allow local traffic to flow again in both directions on the M20.
Mr Shapps said: "There were last night as high as about 500 lorries through to this morning which were queuing, effectively, on the motorway. That is now down to 174 lorries, and there are a few more which will be in a holding area called TAP.
"The main message is 'please don't travel to Kent', most people should be staying home, everybody in Tier 4 must stay at home, and in Tier 3 stay very local. We are grateful also for the hauliers, the lorry drivers, for steering clear as well - that message has been very well understood today and as a result we haven't seen any problems in the area.
"Most of the lorries who are there are primarily European hauliers looking to transit back across to the continent. We will open up Manston Airport, though for the time being it won't be for large numbers of lorries, but more for management purposes, and that's a facility we have ready because we have been planning for the end of the transition period.
"One other development, as well, is that we will use the moveable barrier which has been constructed on the motorway, on the M20, and that enables us to set up a contraflow. That will enable traffic to flow in both directions."
Due to last for an initial 48 hours, the ban was announced on Sunday evening but just after 10am the French government announced freight would be able to begin moving between the countries again "in the next few hours".
The news was a shock to drivers who arrived at the port without any warning of the closures.
German resident Zholt Bacs had come to England for one day's work and was trying to get back to Berlin.
He said :"I didn't know about it. I just arrived yesterday morning for a job for one day. I had all the documents for that and I wanted to go back today but it's not possible.
"I booked a ferry ticket and I've been trying to get on it but everything is closed. I stayed last night in a hotel close to Dover."
Romanian Peter Ionescu, left his lorry in the UK after finishing work and was travelling by car to join his family in his home country for Christmas by car.
He had to sleep in it last night.
He told Kent Online today: "I have been waiting since 10 last night, It's very frustrating. It's not okay to close the border for me or for all the people here.
"My family and two children are waiting for me for Christmas. Self-isolation is not a problem for me but I'd have it in my country, not here and in my car."
Ashford MP Damian Green said earlier this afternoon that he had encouraged Mr Shapps to bring in Operation Brock "as soon as possible".
Brock will see a moveable barrier put in place on the M20, with the coastbound side of the motorway between Maidstone and Ashford used by HGVs heading to cross-Channel ports, and all other traffic restricted to a 50mph contraflow on the opposite carriageway.
It was due to be put in on Sunday, December 27, but is now set to stay in place until after the Brexit transition.
Manston airport is currently being readied to receive up to 4,000 lorries, while the controversial lorry park at Sevington in Ashford will also be able to house about 1,000 vehicles from January 1.
Speaking earlier today, Mr Green said: "As I'm speaking now there are signs of hope, I very much hope the border reopens.
"Once it does, Operation Stack will be taken off, and I've asked the transport minister to ensure that Brock is put in place as quickly as possible to ensure traffic flows both ways.
"The government is saying it should be able to do it overnight tonight, which can only be a good thing. We need to resume freight travel asap. The sooner Brock can come in the better for everyone who lives near the M20."
Several other MPs joined Mr Green in calling for Brock to be installed.
Folkestone MP Damian Collins said: "The government had been planning to deploy [Brock] on the December 27 and 28 as part of its Brexit contingency planning, but it should be introduced now.
"Allowing the motorway to run traffic in both directions will make a big difference to travelling in the county and will reduce congestion on other local roads, like the A20."
Additional reporting by Alex Jee and Sam Lennon