UK and France still working to reopen border with 1,500 lorries stuck in Kent

22 December 2020, 08:01 | Updated: 22 December 2020, 12:06

By Asher McShane

Talks with France on reopening full trade and transport across the Channel are ongoing despite assurances yesterday that the matter would be resolved 'within hours.'

Discussions were ongoing this morning as to how to reopen the border with France, after the Government's chief scientific adviser said more restrictions may be needed at home because cases of a mutant strain of coronavirus were now appearing "everywhere".

The Home Secretary Priti Patel told LBC this morning that 800 lorries were in the queue but the number is believed to be over 1,000.

Highways England said that as of 8.25 this morning there were 650 HGVs on the M20 between J9 and J11, and 945 at the lorry park at Manston. The number of HGVs arriving at Manston is going up every hour, they said.

iMs Patel said the scenes in Kent were not a sign of things to come on January 1: "Whether it's bad weather, strikes in Calais, issues at the border, we constantly see queues of lorries on the M20 and operation stack is infamous if you are a resident of Kent or in the Dover area," she said.

READ MORE: Home Secretary says people should follow the rules to avoid another new lockdown

READ MORE: More areas of England likely to enter Tier 4 in the New Year

"Government has spent the last 12 months and more planning for the end of transition, we have infrastructure in place."

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.

Sir Patrick Vallance gave a grim warning about the prospect of more areas going into Tier 4 after more than 40 countries banned UK flights because of fears regarding the spread of the coronavirus variant.

The chief scientific adviser's remarks followed London and parts of southern and eastern England being rushed into the new Tier 4 lockdown regime at the weekend after existing Tier 3 measures proved inadequate to control the spread of the more infectious variant.

Sir Patrick indicated a lockdown may be needed in wider areas of England, particularly as Christmas mixing may result in an increased spread of cases.

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

Scotland and Northern Ireland have already announced new lockdowns from Boxing Day while Wales' tough restrictions will only be eased for Christmas Day before being reimposed.

Sir Patrick's stark warning came as:

- Boris Johnson spoke to French president Emmanuel Macron as lorries queued in Kent after Paris banned them from travelling across the Channel.

- More than 500,000 people have now received the first dose of a vaccine in the UK.

- The Prime Minister refused to guarantee that schools in England will reopen after Christmas, saying "we want, if we possibly can, to get schools back in a staggered way at the beginning of January" but "the commonsensical thing to do is to follow the path of the epidemic".

After the Government moved to impose Tier 4 restrictions, France shut its border with the UK for 48 hours prompting delays for freight lorries heading across the Channel.

The M20 in Kent was closed on Monday night to allow for the implementation of Operation Brock - contingency measures which involve using a moveable barrier to keep traffic moving on the motorway whenever there is disruption at the Channel - as confusion surrounded how many lorries were impacted by the border shutdown.

Mr Johnson said at a Downing Street press briefing the number of lorries waiting on the M20 had been reduced from 500 to 170, but Highways England later said Kent Police had told them there were 900 lorries parked on the motorway as of 6pm on Monday.

Plans to reopen the border will come into effect from Wednesday, according to reports.

At the Downing Street news conference Sir Patrick said: "The evidence on this virus is that it spreads easily, it's more transmissible, we absolutely need to make sure we have the right level of restrictions in place.

"I think it is likely that this will grow in numbers of the variant across the country and I think it's likely, therefore, that measures will need to be increased in some places, in due course, not reduced."

The New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag) met again on Monday to consider the new variant and said, while it does not appear to alter the course of the disease, it does spread more easily.

"That again reinforces the point that it's important to get ahead of this and to make sure that the tiering system is adequate to stop things going, and not to watch it and react in retrospect," Sir Patrick said.

Given the "inevitable mixing" over Christmas "I think there will be some increases in numbers over the next few weeks", he added.

The closure of cross-Channel routes alarmed businesses, including those relying on the trouble-free passage of produce into the UK, as well as holidaymakers looking to leave for the continent - all with the added complication of the end of the Brexit transition period on December 31.

The Northern Ireland Executive held an emergency late-night meeting amid a row over whether a Great Britain travel ban should be introduced, proposed by Sinn Fein but voted down by the executive.

Supermarket giant Sainsbury's warned that disruption in Kent could hit supplies of lettuce, some salad leaves, cauliflowers, broccoli and citrus fruit, all of which are imported from mainland Europe in the winter.