Published: 10:29, 12 January 2021
| Updated: 11:42, 12 January 2021
The decision by the French to abruptly shut its border to the UK last month has caused a row between councillors of different political colours in Kent.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson had revealed a mutant strain of the virus was spreading across England prompting an emergency shutdown of the south east, including London, Kent and Essex, just five days before Christmas.
More than 50 countries imposed travel bans on the UK, including France, which closed its borders for 48 hours and called for thousands of drivers to have a Covid test before entering the country.
Kent County Council's (KCC) leader Roger Gough (Con) said the response was "disproportionate" to the reality of the situation during a virtual meeting of his Conservative cabinet, involving his nine colleagues, yesterday.
However County Hall's opposition leaders defended the stance taken by French President Emmanuel Macron after the UK "panicked" people.
KCC’s Labour leader, Cllr Dara Farrell (Lab), said: “When Boris Johnson went on TV about the new virus strain in the south east of England it panicked people.
“He cancelled Christmas and the government used its powers to shut down parts of the country, what were the French meant to do?”
At the time, more than 5,000 HGVS were stuck in queues, some forced to sleep in their cabs while stuck on the hard shoulder of the M20 before Christmas and others at a lorry park in Manston airport, near Ramsgate.
Community groups and local authorities stepped in to provide emergency food supplies and toilets, including the Sikh community, Gravesend Gurdwara, who provided 800 free hot meals of curry.
The ensuing chaos lasted for several days, with the military called in to assist with coronavirus testing for lorry drivers stranded at the port of Dover.
However, Cllr Gough said the problems could have been avoided with a more restrained French response.
At cabinet, he said: “It meant a sudden impact on roads in Kent, the inability of lorries to get across the Channel and need for urgent support for those drivers and communities affected by them.”
“While the position can be argued it was an overreaction from the French, I am not sure that is borne out from the evidence..."
After the meeting, KCC’s main opposition leader, Cllr Rob Bird (Lib Dem) said it was not an "overreaction" as he cited Britain's travel ban on South Africa.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock imposed immediate travel restrictions on South Africa three weeks ago after another mutant strain of the virus was linked to two cases from the country. Close contacts were told to quarantine.
Cllr Bird added: “While the position can be argued it was an overreaction from the French, I am not sure that is borne out from the evidence of what countries have done and how Britain has reacted to similar crises.”
Going forward, KCC chiefs have forecast that UK-EU trade will “increase greatly” over the next few days.
Jo James, chief executive of Kent's Chamber of Commerce said: “Drivers have gone to the border and been turned back, not a significant number, but trade volumes are currently a lot less and they will increase."