Highways England confirms there were 900 lorries on the M20 on Monday evening

21 December 2020, 23:41 | Updated: 22 December 2020, 00:29

Boris Johnson said 174 lorries were stuck on the M20 when there were 900
Boris Johnson said 174 lorries were stuck on the M20 when there were 900. Picture: PA Images
Ewan Quayle

By Ewan Quayle

Around 900 lorries were stuck on the M20 on Monday evening - not the 174 that Boris Johnson claimed at a press conference just hours earlier.

Speaking at a Downing Street briefing at 5pm, the PM said there were around 170 lorries queued in Kent after the French banned them from travelling across the Channel.

He also stressed that it was affecting only a small portion - just 20% - of the total number of HGVs attempting to get into Dover.

Read more: France and UK working to reopen border to freight 'as fast as possible'

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"It's vital first to stress that these delays which are currently affecting Dover only affect 20% of total arriving or departing to the European continent," he said, "which means the vast majority of food, medicines and other supplies are coming and going as normal."

But Highways England confirmed later on Monday that there were in fact 900 lorries on the motorway at 6pm - shortly after announced it was implementing Operation Brock which hopes to ease congestion by using a 'moveable barrier'.

Despite attempting to downplay the chaos at the port, the Government is in critical talks with its French counterparts to strike a deal that will clear up the blockage on the motorway.

Mr Johnson said he hopes to resolve the issue within hours.

Currently, vehicles are being sent to Manston Airport, which the Department for Transport said is being prepared to accommodate "up to 4000 lorries" as a measure to ease congestion.

Read more: UK coronavirus travel restrictions: Which countries have banned UK flights?

However, due to the expected level of disruption, the department also advised hauliers to avoid travel to Kent ports "until further notice".

The travel ban has sparked fears that supermarkets could run out of some common items if the issue was not resolved quickly.

Sainsbury's and Tesco have both said they have enough food for customers over Christmas, but warned of potential shortages of items like lettuce, cauliflower and citrus fruits if the freight ban continues.

Chief executive of the Road Haulage Association (RHA), Richard Burnett, said the "fresh food supply where it's short shelf life and there will be product on its way now, that's where the challenge kind of comes from" after France announced the travel ban.

Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has said reaching an agreement with France over the reopening of borders to allow freight to continue to move is an "urgent priority".

"There is not a moment to lose on this and while the UK Government has lead responsibility here, we will do all we can to support," she tweeted.

Read more: Sadiq Khan urges Boris Johnson to seek extension to Brexit transition period

"Our most immediate concern is for our exporting seafood sector. This is the peak time of year for business and the impact on them is significant.

"I raised the issue of compensation at the COBR meeting earlier and (the Scottish Government) will also liaise with sector about support we can offer."

Ms Sturgeon said there is "no immediate concern" over food supplies and urged shoppers not to stockpile, adding there are also no concerns over supplies of medicine and coronavirus vaccines.

"The UK Government MUST avoid this happening all over again at end of year as a result of Brexit," she added.

Read more: Northern Ireland reduces Christmas bubbling to one day

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

The Conservative MP 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".