Disruption at British ports is expected at least until Christmas Eve as France proposes compulsory tests on lorry drivers to limit the spread of a more contagious strain of coronavirus.
Talks between British and French officials were continuing last night in an effort to end the deadlock in which British lorries have been banned from crossing the Channel.
The French embassy in London said that there could be a “secured reopening” of the border tomorrow as part of an EU-wide response to the crisis. Boris Johnson insisted yesterday that “solitary” hauliers were a low-risk group and should be exempted from a wider travel ban imposed to contain the virus.
More than 40 countries have already banned flights from Britain, and the number is expected to grow.
The prime minister said he hoped the blockade would be lifted “within hours”. However, it became clear last night that chaotic scenes were likely at least until the end of the week, even if a solution was found, because of the backlog of vehicles waiting to cross the Channel.
Mr Johnson was accused yesterday of attempting to play down the crisis by claiming that only 174 lorries were queueing on the M20. This was down from 500 on Sunday evening. Some put the number at closer to 900.
Jim McMahon, the shadow transport secretary, said: “It is clear that Boris Johnson either hadn’t bothered to find out what the situation was in Kent or was trying to cover it up. Either way, this is desperate stuff from the prime minister at a time of crisis. He needs to come clean about the situation and get a grip.”
Sainsbury’s warned yesterday that some fresh products could run out “over the coming days”. They included salad leaves, cauliflowers, broccoli and citrus fruit, it said.
Highways England admitted last night that disruption could last for “several days”.
The new testing facilities being considered could be opened at lorry parks in Kent to enable drivers to travel to France.
Paris has demanded the tests for all lorry drivers crossing the Channel. There was fury in Downing Street over the sudden ban, which ministers conceded took them by surprise.
The UK testing facility would be based at the disused Manston airport 20 miles north of Dover, which was opened to park HGVs yesterday. It would probably involve the use of rapid “lateral flow” tests that can deliver results in around 15 minutes.
However, there are concerns within government about how long it would take to establish such a system. With potentially 6,000 drivers a day needing to be screened, the system could present a major logistical headache.
France wants truckers to take PCR coronavirus tests, which cost up to £180 with a result between 24 and 48 hours. The tests would delay attempts to get the lorries moving and help clear the backlog.
British government officials have been making the case to exempt lorry drivers from the travel ban, pointing out that hauliers rarely come into close contact with others, making them less likely to spread the virus.
Whitehall sources told The Times that it would bow to French demands and introduce border tests, however, if this got goods flowing.
Yesterday Downing Street urged people not to panic buy and rejected suggestions that Mr Macron had imposed the freight ban as a warning shot over Brexit.
Thierry Breton, France’s EU commissioner, said, however, that if Britain had stayed in the EU the French government could have helped tackle the new strain of coronavirus by accessing Brussels’s €750 billion recovery fund.
“It’s a tragedy what is happening in Britain. This Brexit is a tragedy . . . but just imagine, if Britain had stayed [in the EU] as we had hoped, it would, like all European countries, have between €30 billion, €40 billion, €50 billion that would help it today from the Next Generation EU Fund that we put in place, we the Commission, and of which Britain is depriving itself.”
Mr Johnson told a press conference: “We’re working to a solution as fast as we can to allow freight traffic to resume between the UK and France and ensure lorries can travel in both directions in a Covid-secure way.
“We in the UK fully understand the anxieties of our friends about Covid but it’s also true that we believe the risks of transmission by a solitary driver sitting alone in the cab are really very low.
“These delays only applied to a very small percentage of food entering the UK and, as British supermarkets have said, supply chains are strong and robust, so everyone can continue to shop normally.”
Around two thirds of the 6,000 lorries a day use the port of Dover and a third the Eurotunnel. Even if an agreement is brokered, however, it is likely that disruption at the Channel ports will last for several days.
Highways England confirmed last night that Operation Brock, involving a contraflow system on the main coast-bound M20 to enable traffic to use both sides of the roadway, was being implemented. A concrete moveable barrier was to be installed last night to create a safe new road layout. It will replace Operation Stack, a quicker system that results in the closure of at least one carriageway for lorries to park. The government-owned company said that disruption in Kent could continue until later this week.
It said in a statement: “Hauliers are advised to avoid travelling to Kent as disruption could last for several days.”
Eurotunnel also admitted that delays at the border could continue until Wednesday or Thursday because of delays implementing any testing regime.
John Keefe, director of public affairs at Eurotunnel, told BBC Radio 5 Live: “What we are waiting for the French to announce is what the protocol will be to restart movement in the UK to France direction.” He said that Eurotunnel expected to have a testing system in place, speculating that drivers might have to produce a negative coronavirus test within 72 hours of travelling. “We are hoping that it’s going to be something along those lines, then people will be able to start thinking about travel again from Wednesday to Thursday,” he said.
The government insisted that the supply of goods into the UK was continuing despite the disruption in Kent. Trucks can travel into ports such as Rotterdam in the Netherlands.
Unaccompanied freight — containers not pulled by lorries, which accounts for about 80 per cent of the total entering the UK — can move between the UK, France and other countries.