No Christmas Eve joy for truckers stuck in UK virus gridlock

Sylvia Hu
Associated Press

Dover, England — Trucks inched slowly past checkpoints at the English port of Dover and headed across the Channel on Thursday to the French port of Calais after France partially reopened its borders with Britain following a scare over a rapidly spreading new virus variant.

Still, thousands of truck drivers and travellers remained trapped in the mass gridlock at the Dover port on Christmas Eve, held up by slow delivery of the coronavirus tests now demanded by France. One by one, trucks passed toward ferries and trains that link Britain with France, as authorities checked that drivers had the negative virus tests required to cross.

Vehicles queue to move into the departures boarding area as COVID-19 tests are carried out at the Port of Dover in Kent, where thousands are waiting to resume their journey across The Channel after the borders with France reopened  Thursday.

On the French side, powerful winds buffeted the coast before dawn and the vast Calais port — which normally takes in up to 4,000 trucks a day — remained quieter than usual.

A Dover port spokeswoman said it “received" fewer than 100 freight vehicles “due to restrictions on testing,” and officials warned the backlog could take days to clear. One U.K. road haulage expert estimated there could be 8,000 to 10,000 trucks caught up in the chaos near Dover but a government minister said it involved some 4,000 trucks.

French Ambassador Catherine Colonna said two dozen French firefighters have been sent to Dover, bringing 10,000 coronavirus tests for drivers desperate to get home for Christmas. British Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said British and French authorities have agreed to keep the border between the countries open throughout Christmas to help truck drivers and travelers get home.

Dozens of countries around the world began barring people from Britain last weekend after Prime Minister Boris Johnson said large areas of southern England had to be placed under harsh restrictions to curb a new, more contagious version of the virus whipping around London and England’s southeast.

France’s move raised the most concern, since France is a major conduit for trade and travel between Britain and the continent. The U.K. relies heavily on cross-Channel commercial links to the continent for food at this time of year, especially fresh fruit and vegetables.

The announcement of the coronavirus variant added to anxieties at a time when Europe has been walloped by soaring new virus infections and deaths. Europe as a whole has recorded over 500,000 virus-related deaths, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University that experts agree is probably an undercount due to missed cases and other factors.

Police stand next to an electronic notice, in Dover, England, Wednesday.

Britain has seen soaring infection rates in recent weeks, with many hospitals nearing their capacities. On Wednesday, the country reported another 744 deaths and a record 39,237 confirmed new cases. Christmas gatherings and festive shopping were cancelled for millions at the last minute in a bid to control the spread of the virus.

London now has the highest rate of people testing positive in the country, with an estimated 2.1% of people testing positive for COVID-19, according to figures published Thursday by the Office for National Statistics.

France defended its handling of the border situation after the EU’s transport commissioner issued unusually strong public criticism.

Commissioner Adina Valean, of Romania, tweeted: “I deplore that France went against our recommendations and brought us back to the situation we were in in March when the supply chains were interrupted.”

France’s European affairs minister, Clement Beaune, tweeted back that France had “exactly followed the EU recommendation” and is now “more open than other European countries” to arrivals from Britain.

Some European countries relaxed their travel limits on Britain on Wednesday, though many remain. China on Thursday became the latest nation to suspend flights to and from the U.K.

Angela Charlton contributed from Paris.