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

21 December 2020, 18:13 | Updated: 21 December 2020, 20:06

By Joe Cook

Boris Johnson has told a press conference that France and the UK are working to resume freight travel between the two countries "as fast as possible".

The French government closed their borders to all travellers from the UK, including lorry drivers, from midnight last night over fears of a new variant of Covid.

Speaking at a Downing Street press conference, the Prime Minister said he had "a very good call" with French President Emmanuel Macron, but talks are ongoing to reopen the Channel crossing.

"We are working to a solution... as fast as we can to allow freight traffic to resume between the UK and France and ensure that lorries can travel in both directions in a Covid-secure way," he explained.

Earlier on Monday, French Transport minister Jean-Baptiste Djebbari said "in the next few hours" they would establish a "protocol to ensure that movement from the UK can resume".

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The PM stressed that the UK "fully understands the anxieties" of other countries over the new Covid variant.

He added: "We believe the risks of transmission by a solitary driver sitting alone in the cab are really very low."

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Transport Secretary Grant Shapps, also speaking at the press conference, explained the number of lorries queuing on the motorway in Kent has fallen from around 500 last night to 174 at the last count.

However, many businesses involved in transporting goods across the Channel are concerned that perishable goods will have to be written off if an agreement is not reached soon.

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In recent days around 10,000 lorries have passed through the port of Dover every 24 hours.

Mr Shapps explained that a moveable concrete barrier, constructed ahead of the end of the Brexit transition period, will be used to allow traffic to flow on the motorway.

The barrier, which is part of Operation Brock, allows a contraflow system to be implemented on the M20 in Kent within hours.

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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."

He added that the Brexit planning had helped the UK's response to the closure: "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."

Following the press conference Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said reaching an agreement with the French was an "urgent prirority".

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.

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.

Sainsbury's warned earlier on Monday 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.

However, at the press briefing Mr Johnson stressed that people do not need to panic buy food.

"These delays only apply to a very small percentage of food entering the UK and as British supermarkets have said, their supply chains are strong and robust, so everyone can continue to shop normally," he continued.

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A spokesperson for Sainsbury's 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."

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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".

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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 the freight traffic suspension "has the potential to cause serious disruption to UK Christmas fresh food supplies and exports of UK food and drink".

Mr Wright added: "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."