Coronavirus: France to lift ban on lorries 'within hours' after closing border

21 December 2020, 08:13 | Updated: 21 December 2020, 12:25

France closed off its borders last night
France closed off its borders last night. Picture: PA

By Asher McShane

The French Government is working on a plan to get freight moving through Dover 'within hours' after they caused chaos at the port by closing it due to the new infectious strain of covid.

Haulage bosses warned over a possible “serious disruption" to UK Christmas fresh food supplies and exports of UK food and drink after France closed off borders.

But a French minister said today that "in the next few hours" it will establish a "protocol to ensure that movement from the UK can resume".

French Transport minister Jean-Baptiste Djebbari said a plan would be put in place at a European Union-wide level "to ensure that movement from the UK can resume".

Asked about France's decision around the new coronavirus strain, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps told LBC this morning: "The hauliers aren't able to cross. What you'll see is a long line of mostly European lorries waiting to cross back into Europe.

"A very limited number of people are coming in, returning home but by and large the crossing is closed. We are advising people not to travel."

Read more: France and Germany join list of countries banning UK travel over Covid variant

Read more: Grant Shapps says people can claim refunds for cancelled Xmas trips

He said: "It disadvantages them [France] not being able to sell their goods."

Asked about Brexit he said: "All the planning has had one small benefit for example we are opening up Manston airport as a lorry park to ensure we can look after the welfare of the hauliers."

He said it won't affect the vaccine. "We've got stocks until the New Year and 'sealed containers' can carry on flowing."

New border restrictions in France have led to the closure of key trade routes in Kent on Sunday night.

It is likely to have severe ramifications for UK trade, which in recent days has seen around 10,000 lorries passing through the port of Dover every 24 hours.

Much of the trade passing through the Channel ports consists of perishable goods which need to reach their destination quickly.

But from midnight all traffic to France from the UK will be suspended for at least 48 hours.

Sainsbury's warned today that some products could be missing from shelves due to restrictions at ports, but said food for a traditional Christmas lunch is available and already in the country.

A spokesperson said: "All products for the Great British Christmas lunch are already in the country and we have plenty of these.

"We are also sourcing everything we can from the UK and looking into alternative transport for product sourced from Europe.

"If nothing changes, we will start to see gaps over the coming days on lettuce, some salad leaves, cauliflowers, broccoli and citrus fruit - all of which are imported from the Continent at this time of year.

"We hope the UK and French governments can come to a mutually agreeable solution that prioritises the immediate passage of produce and any other food at the ports."

A spokesperson for the Port of Tilbury said: "Our European-facing container and ferry terminals remain highly productive, with strong volumes and daily sailings.

"Our network of European freight ferry and container operations utilises a non-driver model, which is resilient in the face of the current coronavirus- and Brexit-based challenges faced by all British ports."

Food and Drink Federation chief executive Ian Wright said: "Tonight's suspension of accompanied freight traffic from the UK to France has the potential to cause serious disruption to UK Christmas fresh food supplies and exports of UK food and drink. 

"Continental truckers will not want to travel here if they have a real fear of getting marooned. The Government must very urgently persuade the French government to exempt accompanied freight from its ban."

- What could this mean for food and goods stocks in the UK?

It is possible that these border restrictions could affect the flow of key goods into the UK.

Andrew Opie, of the British Retail Consortium, said: "The closure of France to UK traffic, including accompanied freight, poses difficulties for UK capacity to import and export key goods during the busy Christmas period."

He suggested that while goods can still enter the UK from France, it may be that few haulage firms will be willing to send trucks and drivers across to the UK without a guarantee they can return to the EU in a timely manner.

It is believed that many retailers will have already stocked up on Christmas goods which should prevent immediate supply problems.

However any prolonged closure of the border with France would present difficulties for businesses, Mr Opie said.
- What about UK businesses which export goods to the continent?

While lorries bearing products from France can still come into the UK, the same does not apply for many UK goods bound for the continent.

Scottish seafood exporter Lochfyne said that the closure of the French border the week before Christmas was a "disaster".

A spokesman said on Twitter: "There will be Vivier trucks from all over Scotland heading in that direction, millions of pounds worth of seafood at the time of the most important market of the year the last one before Xmas.

"Even if we get through 48 hours later we will miss the Xmas deadline, this is unbelievable."

- What about traffic in Kent?

The Government has warned of "significant disruption" in the area and said people should avoid travelling to Kent ports.

There is a distinct possibility of problems on the county's highways on Monday morning as businesses face uncertainty over the movement of goods.

Huge queues of HGVs stretching for many miles along Kent highways have become a familiar sight in recent days due to Christmas preparations and Brexit stockpiling.

Transport Select Committee chairman Huw Merriman said the situation at the border with France is "very alarming".

The Conservative MP for Bexhill and Battle said there was no need for panic but that it was "important that we find a way through before transport and ports are completely blockaded".