Backlog of lorries in Kent will take days to clear as testing begins

22 December 2020, 17:25 | Updated: 23 December 2020, 10:08

Lorries are parked on the runway at Manston airport at sunrise as part of Operation Brock
Lorries are parked on the runway at Manston airport at sunrise as part of Operation Brock. Picture: Getty

By Megan White

Lorries will be able to move across the UK-France border from Wednesday morning as a mass testing programme for HGV drivers gets underway.

All lorry drivers, irrespective of nationality, will require a lateral flow test to enter France.

This can detect the new strain of Covid-19 and provide results in around 30 minutes, rather than the 24 hours required after a PCR test.

In a statement, the Department for Transport said they "continue to strongly urge hauliers not to travel to Kent until further notice, while a mass testing programme for HGV drivers gets underway to alleviate congestion at ports."

Read more: Lorry drivers stranded 'like Robinson Crusoe' brace for Christmas in a queue

Planes, boats and Eurostar services to France will also resume service tomorrow morning for French nationals, residents and those who are travelling for essential reasons, and travellers will need a negative PCR test.

The protocol agreed with the French government will be reviewed on December 31, but could run until January 6.

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said: “I am pleased that we have made this important progress with our French counterparts this evening.

"This protocol will see the French border reopen to those travelling for urgent reasons, provided they have a certified negative COVID test.

“We continue to urge hauliers not to travel to Kent until further notice as we work to alleviate congestion at ports.”

But Mr Shapps said it could take until Christmas for congestion to be relieved near ports.

Read more: Tory MP: Facilities to help lorry drivers at Manston Airport are 'slightly sketchy'

Speaking to the media, he said: "We have managed to get all those tests to Kent, enough for all the vehicles which will want to return before Christmas, so that won't be an issue.

"Obviously there's a physical issue of providing the test, getting the results. A negative test allows you to leave.

"But all of that requires operationalising and that can't happen in an instant, so this will take two or three days for things to be cleared."

The French government will also carry out sample testing on incoming freight to the UK, the DfT said.

A Kent County Council spokeswoman said earlier about 2,180 lorries were being held at the former Manston airfield while 632 were part of the Operation Stack arrangements on the M20.

Earlier on Tuesday, industry experts told MPs the freight ban was holding up more than 4,000 lorries, and warned that halted trucks "need to move in the next 24 hours" if supermarkets are to avoid empty shelves.

More than 40 countries have banned flights from the UK due to a mutant variant of coronavirus spreading through the country, while lorry drivers spent a second night sleeping in their cabs on the M20 outside the Port of Dover, which has been shut since Sunday night as a result of the new strain.

A joint Government and Kent Resilience Forum statement said: "Food, toilets and water are available for hauliers along the M20 and at Manston, with more food trucks expected to arrive at Manston shortly.

"There are more than adequate health and welfare provisions available, with nearly 150 toilets and urinals at Manston and portable toilets every 1km on the M20 between junctions 10a and 11. Seventy additional toilets will arrive at Manston tomorrow morning."

Ian Wright, chief executive of the Food and Drink Federation (FDF), told MPs that the number of food and drink lorries affected by travel restrictions around 4,000, and said: "I don't think the number of trucks in the queue is the relevant number.

He added: "Anyone seeing this all happening in the run-up would have parked somewhere else, somewhere more congenial and in a better state."

On Monday evening, the Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said that 174 lorries were queuing on the M20 due to the disruption.

Duncan Buchanan, director of policy, England & Wales, at the Road Haulage Association, told MPs he was disappointed with how the Government presented the levels of freight disruption on Monday evening.

"We were very disappointed because of the way it was portrayed last night, as it was seeking to minimise the nature of the problem," he told the committee.

"This is a very serious problem - whether you have moved trucks from one place to another, it is irrelevant.

"This is a very different level of supply chain disruption, of the like we have probably never experienced.

"Many of the retailers are saying that we are up until Christmas, we will be fine until Christmas at least, but we must recover very fast to keep the shops fully stocked after Christmas. It's a big worry."

Retailers have called on shoppers not to panic buy, but have raised concerns that supply of some fresh produce, such as lettuce and broccoli, could be impacted by the disruption.

Andrew Opie, director of food and sustainability at the British Retail Consortium (BRC), told the BEIS committee: "The real issue we face is what happens in the next day or so.

"If we do not see the empty trucks, which have already delivered to warehouses and stores, getting back over the channel, they will not be able to pick up the next consignment of fresh fruit, vegetables, salad vegetables.

"What we've been told by members is that unless those trucks can start travelling again and go back to Spain and Portugal and other parts of Europe, we will problems with fresh produce from December 27.

"What we need is for those trucks to move in the next 24 hours if we are to avoid seeing problems on our shelves."

Mr Wright added that the disruption is also having a particular impact on food producers in the UK, warning that UK seafood could be destroyed if trucks continue to be halted.

"There are dozens of lorries there with product that is going off. There is a huge hit here to Scottish seafood," he told MPs.

"All my members will tell you that the insurance policies they have will not cover the loss of goods due to circumstances like this.

"If the Government was handing out train fares to go see Granny, they should compensate ... those who through no fault of their own found themselves in this situation where millions of pounds of stock is going off as they sit in the queue.

"We'll be pressing them very hard to look at a compensation scheme."