UK ports race to clear backlog of 4,000 lorries as France lifts freight ban and Covid testing leads to delays

Channel ports face disruption stretching right up to the 31 December Brexit deadline as a race begins to clear a backlog of thousands of lorries built up during France's 48-hour freight ban. Eurotunnel and ferry links resumed on Wednesday morning after France agreed to re-open its border to lorries from the UK, allaying fears of post-Christmas food shortages.   Further delays are expected with the Army due to be brought in to help administer Covid tests for thousands of lorry drivers as part of requirements agreed with Paris on Tuesday.

France shut its borders to all passengers and drivers  coming from the UK on Sunday amid fears of a new coronavirus variant. Industry boses said that the disruption had already taken a "terrible toll" on hauliers and UK exporters who have lost millions of pounds on spoiled goods including seafood destined for French fish markets. More than 4,000 lorries crammed onto motorways and were parked up on Manston airport - a disused airfield near the Kent coast that has become a makeshift lorry park.

The number was many times more than the prime minister had claimed on Monday. Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick warned it may take a "few days" to clear the backlog. Mr Jenrick told Sky News that drivers will receive rapid lateral flow tests, which can give results in about 30 minutes, followed by a PCR test if they come back positive.

Those who return a second positive result will be offered "Covid-secure" hotel accommodation. The Road Haulage Association estimates as many as 10,000 delayed lorries are now in Kent and its surrounding areas, in truck stops and at depots waiting for borders to reopen and to cross the Channel. "Even if the border is opened up, a short delay in the process is going to mean huge delays in the supply chain," a spokesperson said.

RHA chief executive Richard Burnett said: "There are many serious implications to this latest situation, even lateral flow Covid testing will have a massive impact on the supply chain."

The welfare of the drivers is also an issue, with Mr Burnett saying: "What happens to them? How is it all going to play out? Are they going to be tested on site or are they going to have to go somewhere else to do it?"

"They will be unfit to drive but where will they go?," he added. "They will be unable to quarantine with their families in Europe and what will happen to their vehicles? "Who will be responsible for the deep cleaning of their cabs? And for those carrying return loads, what will happen to their cargo?

This is going to be an extremely expensive exercise." Ian Wright, chief executive of the Food and Drink Federation (FDF), told MPs that the number of food and drink lorries affected was far more than government figures suggest because many drivers had chosen not to even enter Kent because of the gridlock. "We must also recognise the terrible toll being taken on food exporters and hauliers," he said.

Seafood exporters have been particularly severely affected with most unable to claim on insurance. "We'll be pressing [the government] very hard to look at a compensation scheme." Hauliers expect the current backlog to take several days to clear while insurer Euler Hermes cautioned that lorries could face delays going out of Dover and Folkestone for a week.

That would lead into the end of the Brexit transition period on 31 December when further disruption is expected as lorries face additional checks and paperwork which many firms are thought to be unprepared for. Richard Burnett, chief executive of the RHA, said the current chaos was a sign of what's to come after the transition period ends, whether a trade deal is secured or not. Appearing at a roundtable discussion with Labour frontbenchers Rachel Reeves and Anneliese Dodds, he praised UK businesses' Brexit preparations.

"In terms of stock building, the UK I think has done a very good job prior to transition," he said. "But what we are dealing pretty much straight away is going to eat into that transition stock building that many of the retailers will have done.   "That will be ambient products that has a long-shelf life. The issue we're going to face is definitely chilled food - it's going to be salad, it's going to be veg, it's going to be fruit, where you have a very short shelf life."

(AFP via Getty Images)

"If they get delayed coming into the UK they'll be written off because the life of the product disappears.

That's where the risk is at this point in time." Andrew Howard, the managing director of Howard's distribution, also told the roundtable discussion: "At the moment the crisis we're in, with Covid and Brexit, we're struggling to get goods in from abroad.  "Every day we have lorries that should be delivering goods that are coming overnight to UK businesses, to UK houses, but those goods are not coming in.

We've got a problem in terms of getting the goods in from abroad for our customers." He warned that some containers stuck outside Felixstowe were being diverted to Belgium "which increases the problems and congestion and port". "In general, there is an increasing concern from customers and pressure from customers in terms of actually we're now becoming in a state of chaos, the supply chain is falling down.

What on earth is going to happen in early 2021? A combination of Covid, of Brexit is just a toxic mix." France announced on Sunday evening that it would be banning all but "unaccompanied freight" from the UK for 48 hours, quickly halting all ferry connections, as well as rail services through the Channel tunnel.  

More than 40 countries both inside and outside the EU have imposed travel restrictions to contain the spread of the new variant, which UK government scientists claim is 70 per cent more infectious than the established version of the virus. 

President Emmanuel Macron's office said only that EU travellers and UK citizens with EU residence who have a negative  coronavirus test less than 72 hours old will be allowed to enter France. 

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