Testing begins for Kent lorry drivers amid warnings backlog could take days to clear

23 December 2020, 14:06 | Updated: 23 December 2020, 14:56

Lorries have been parked in Marsten Airport in Kent to relieve the M20
Lorries have been parked in Manston Airport in Kent to relieve the M20. Picture: Getty

By Kate Buck

Lorry drivers in Kent have started being tested for coronavirus this afternoon in an effort to allow them into France, amid warnings the backlog could take days to clear.

France imposed strict restrictions on the UK after a mutant strain of Covid-19 was discovered, leading to huge delays at the Port of Dover.

France imposed the travel ban in response to fears about the spread of the more infectious coronavirus strain, which is 70% more transmissible and spreading in the UK.

Although the border has been reopened, there are warnings it could be days before the backlog created by the delays is cleared, jeopardising vital food supplies in and out of the country.

Read more: Lorry drivers clash with police in Dover as French border reopens

The British Retail Consortium (BRC) warned there may be shortages of some fresh goods until the backlog of lorries is cleared.

Andrew Opie, the BRC's director of food and sustainability, said: "Until the backlog is cleared and supply chains return to normal, we anticipate issues with the availability of some fresh goods."

Lorry drivers clashed with police earlier amid warnings the backlog could take days to clear
Lorry drivers clashed with police earlier amid warnings the backlog could take days to clear. Picture: PA

Around 5,000 lorries are currently thought to be parked on the M20 and at Manston Airport after the French Government brought in the strict restrictions on Saturday.

The travel ban was eased on Wednesday, but said those seeking entry into the country from the UK must have a negative coronavirus result.

All truck drivers, regardless of nationality, are required to take a lateral flow test which can detect the new strain of Covid-19 and return results in about 30 minutes, the Road Haulage Association (RHA) said.

Hauliers must be able to show proof of a negative test result carried out within the past 72 hours in order to be able to cross into France.

Lorry drivers clashed with police earlier this afternoon in a a "stand-off" as tensions ran high at the port.

Drivers were filmed jeering and booing at police and there were some scuffles after reports of delays to the border reopening.

Clashes broke out when tensions boiled over after drivers who had been queueing at Dover were told by police to report for testing at Manston, a driver told LBC today.

The Calais-Dover crossing was shut down on Sunday evening over fears of a new highly-infectious Covid strain, leaving thousands of lorry drivers stranded before Christmas.

Drivers park on the M20 as delays pile up due to the border closure in France
Drivers park on the M20 as delays pile up due to the border closure in France. Picture: PA

The Manston Airfield site has become the main testing centre for hauliers, with drivers required to self-administer the tests in their cabs under supervision.

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

RHA chief executive Richard Burnett said: "The massive backlog of vehicles will take time to clear and hundreds of drivers run the risk or not getting home in time for Christmas."

On Wednesday, Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick told LBC that the army will be deployed to assist with the logistics of testing lorry drivers stuck in Kent but the backlog will take "a couple of days" to clear.

Speaking to Nick Ferrari on LBC at breakfast, Mr Jenrick said: "Traffic will start to flow this morning, it will take a couple of days to work this through because there is a significant backlog now.

Lorry drivers have been told to get tested for coronavirus at Marsten Airport
Lorry drivers have been told to get tested for coronavirus at Manston Airport. Picture: PA

“The armed forces will be helping us to put in place procedures over the course of the day so there will be a testing regime at Manston airport and other locations within Kent.

“The planning that has been done over three years now ahead of the end of the transition period has been helpful.

“We’ve actually been relatively well prepared but I hope this situation. will be resolved within the next couple of days.”

On Tuesday, it was announced that 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.

Tensions at the border are running high
Tensions at the border are running high. Picture: PA

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."

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.

LBC has approached Kent police for further details.