Vital trade and travel links between the U.K. and continental Europe slowly reopened after France eased border restrictions, but huge backlogs that could take days to clear led to tensions at Britain’s busiest port.
Near Dover, police clashed with some truckers angry that they’ve been waiting since Saturday and are trying to get home for Christmas. Many are lined up for coronavirus tests that they need for passage into France.
France cut off shipments from the port in southeast England on Sunday because of concern over a faster-spreading variant of Covid-19 that prompted the U.K. government to lock down London and surrounding areas. That heightened a sense of economic isolation in the U.K. as the high-stakes political drama of Brexit edged closer to its end-of-year deadline.
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said virus testing had begun so traffic could start flowing again on Wednesday, but severe delays continued and hauliers were still advised not to travel to Kent, the county where Dover is located.
As port officials and ferry companies worked to get things moving, frustrated truckers demanded updates. Next to the protests, Polish driver Arturro Bojdal said he’d been stuck two miles from Dover since midnight on Sunday. He picked up his load in Southampton to deliver it in the Czech Republic.
“First they said testing would start yesterday, then today. The police told us tests got stuck on the motorway,” he said. “I just want to get home for Christmas.”
Almost 3,000 trucks have been stuck in southeast England, lined up on the side of the highway and the tarmac of a local airport — creating a logjam that threatened the supply of some fresh food items in British supermarkets.
While U.K. food and retail groups welcomed the decision to reopen Channel crossings, there was also a warning that some foods could remain in short supply. Drivers need to get tested and it will take time to clear the thousands of trucks backed up on roads through Dover. The Food and Drink Federation said it could be the New Year before normal operations resume.
“It is essential that lorries get moving,” said Andrew Opie, Director of Food & Sustainability at the British Retail Consortium. “Until the backlog is cleared and supply chains return to normal, we anticipate issues with the availability of some fresh goods.”
Speaking on Sky News, U.K. Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick said there were supply-chain issues, but “no material shortage of food” and people shouldn’t panic buy.
Along with France, more than 40 countries restricted travel from the U.K. because of the new coronavirus variant. On Wednesday, the Nikkei reported that Japan will suspend all foreign arrivals from the U.K. while the Philippines will halt all flights from Dec. 24 to Dec. 31. India, Hong Kong and Singapore have implemented similar measures.
German Transport Minister Andreas Scheuer, in a Twitter post, urged a quick solution so supply chains can function smoothly again and drivers can return home, adding that he’s talking with his EU counterparts about ways to help ease the congestion.
The widespread restrictions on movements to the U.K. have had a knock-on impact on other cargo routes, causing freight rates to rocket and leaving businesses facing weeks-long delays for deliveries to be made, said Grant Liddell, business development director at Metro Shipping Ltd, which moves goods for some of Britain’s largest retailers and automotive companies.
“It is beyond the perfect storm,” Liddell said. “Everything is hammered.”
The limited reopening of the U.K.-France border followed 48 hours of cross-Channel political bartering just as negotiations with the EU over a post-Brexit trade deal intensified. With less than 10 days to go before the U.K.’s transition period with the bloc ends, the upheaval gave a sampling of the potential pain Britain could face at its borders in 2021.
“I’ve never known anything like it,” said Ellis Blackham, accounts manager at JJX Logistics, a West Midlands-based firm which does just-in-time deliveries of manufacturing parts into the EU. “It doesn’t matter what you pay — we can’t leave.”
Blackham said JJX turned down a delivery to Romania yesterday because all cargo options — land, sea, air — were exhausted. One of JJX’s French drivers has been stuck in a queue by the Eurotunnel, and the company wasn’t able to find an alternative EU haulier to take on the Romania job.
“We never say no, and I had to say no,” Blackham said. “Even if you said I’d give you a million pounds, we cannot do it.”
The new travel restrictions requiring a negative virus result will apply until at least Jan. 6, the French government said.
For trucks stuck now, food lobby groups said priority must be given to perishable loads like seafood and other fresh foods. But given the scale of the logistical operation, port officials said that might not be possible, and the priority was just to get ferries loaded and clear the trucks.
“During the course of 2019 we had a number of periods when we were facing a no-deal exit,” said Doug Bannister, chief executive of the Port of Dover. “We’ve been working on our plans but this is a rather unprecedented situation that’s evolved. We hope to get traffic moving at a good clip during the course of today.”
Near the port, the Sikh humanitarian relief group Khalsa Aid returned to Kent with more than 1,000 pizzas donated by local Domino’s restaurants after serving stranded drivers 800 curries on Tuesday. It took workers at five stores to make them, and they’ll be distributed by the coastguard and highways agency.