Published: 09:25, 25 December 2020
| Updated: 09:32, 25 December 2020
Thousands of international lorry drivers were spending Christmas Day in their cabs at the English Channel border despite progress being made to return hauliers to their home countries.
Hundreds of soldiers have been deployed as part of the repatriation operation in Kent after French Covid-19 restrictions temporarily banning UK freight caused severe disruption at the Port of Dover.
Traffic was moving smoothly through the port on Friday morning, with French firefighters drafted in to help the military test drivers for coronavirus.
More than 700 hauliers have been cleared for departure since France reopened its border on Wednesday – and a chorus of beeping horns sounded at Dover on Christmas Eve as those at the front of the queue celebrated finally being able to leave.
However, some 5,000 remain unable to get home yet, despite some progress made in testing drivers holed up in their vehicles at nearby Manston Airport, on a closed section of the M20, and in the town of Dover itself.
Some have already spent nearly a week stranded due to the diplomatic impasse.
Southeastern Railway and Network Rail arranged for food to be delivered to lorry drivers stuck in Operation Brock on the M20.
Seven trains carrying crates of food for the hauliers have left London in the past 48 hours, with the Salvation Army distributing the items.
France closed its border on Sunday following the discovery of a fast-spreading mutant Covid-19 strain in the UK.
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said: “We need to get the situation in Kent, caused by the French Government’s sudden imposition of Covid restrictions, resolved as soon as possible.
“I have today sent special instructions to the Army to take control of testing and HGV management operations in the county. Our aim is to get foreign hauliers home with their families as quickly as we can.
“I know it’s been hard for many drivers cooped up in their cabs at this precious time of year, but I assure them that we are doing our utmost to get them home.”
The Department for Transport (DfT) said all but three of the 2,367 coronavirus tests issued to hauliers have been negative – a stipulation of travel introduced by French authorities.
More than 300 soldiers will take charge of testing and lorry marshalling to clear the backlog.
The Government said catering vans would provide complementary hot food and drinks to stranded hauliers at Manston, with Kent Council and volunteer groups providing refreshments to those stuck on the M20.
There are more than 250 toilets at Manston, with a further 32 portable toilets added to existing facilities already along the M20.
A Port of Dover spokesman said ferry services had run throughout Christmas Eve night and would continue on Christmas Day to help ease congestion.
Traffic was moving more quickly at the Eurotunnel, with around 2,000 lorries expected to depart on Thursday.
Duncan Buchanan, a policy director at the Road Haulage Association, said: “The most reassuring thing is that food is getting through at Manston, and I have to say a big thank you to everyone who volunteered to help drivers stick it out in cold conditions in the days leading up to Christmas.”