Industry groups hit out at Covid-19 tests for lorry drivers

Imposing a coronavirus testing regime on lorry drivers crossing the English Channel will have a "massive impact" on UK supply chains, and will increase the risk of food shortages in supermarkets, industry groups warned on Tuesday. France on Tuesday demanded testing for all travellers -- including truck drivers -- coming to the country from the UK as Paris confirmed it was reopening its border with Britain after a 48-hour closure aimed at trying to stall the advance of a new strain of coronavirus. Since the closure, more than 2,800 lorries have backed up on to the motorway outside the port of Dover and parked at the nearby disused Manston airfield, which is being used as a holding area for trucks, according to the Department for Transport.

Richard Burnett, head of the UK's Road Haulage Association, a trade body, said even using rapid Covid-19 tests on drivers that are based on lateral-flow technology would have "serious implications" for freight on the key route between Dover and Calais, which involves up to 10,000 lorries each working day.

"Lateral-flow Covid testing will have a massive impact on the supply chain," he added. Mr Burnett also questioned the practicality of imposing a testing regime on fast-moving freight between the EU and the UK, given lorries were constantly traversing between Britain and continental Europe. The RHA said at least 4,000 lorries were now stranded in the UK due to France closing its border -- not just in Kent but around the country -- and this number could increase to 7,000 by Wednesday.

Rob Hollyman, director of Youngs Transportation and Logistics, suggested disruption stemming from France's border closure would last well beyond the 48-hour period because of the number of stranded lorries. "It's not going to be two days -- the backlog will mean this goes on for far longer," he said. Shane Brennan, chief executive of the Cold Chain Federation, a trade body representing companies operating chilled storage facilities, said France's requirement for testing of lorry drivers could mean a "bleak midwinter" for UK food supplies as he also flagged issues raised by the UK's exit from the EU single market and customs union on January 1.

"EU hauliers were already sceptical about undertaking UK work before this -- the Brexit paperwork risks were bad enough, but a new test system will not only be slow but come with the risk of long quarantines," he said.  "With trade moving at a snail's pace . . . it could be a bleak midwinter for our food supplies." Retailers said they were 24 hours away from potential shortages of fresh produce.

Andrew Opie, director of food and sustainability at the British Retail Consortium, said unless France fully reopened its border with the UK and lorries started to move on Wednesday, there would be problems with fresh produce from December 27. The Food and Drink Federation said the government's attempts to downplay the scale of the problem caused by France's border closure overlooked the reality that half of UK food was imported from the EU during winter months, with the vast majority coming over the English Channel. "UK shoppers need have no concerns about food supplies over Christmas, but impacts on local on-shelf availability of certain fresh foods look likely from next week unless we can swiftly restore this link," it added.

Ian Wright, FDF chief executive, said lorries may now be in the wrong place after Christmas, which would hit the ability of food manufacturers to stockpile both ingredients and finished products before the end of the Brexit transition period.

Manston (C) William Edwards/AFP

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