LONDON: Around 1,000 British soldiers were spending Christmas Day trying to clear a huge backlog of truck drivers stuck in southeast England after France briefly closed its border to the UK, then demanded coronavirus tests from all amid fears of a new, apparently more contagious, virus variant.
Even though an estimated 4,000 or so international truck drivers are spending yet another day cooped up in their cabs, some progress was evident on Friday, with traffic around the English Channel port of Dover moving in an orderly fashion towards the extra ferries that were put on to make the short crossing across to Calais in northern France. Rail operator Eurotunnel was also back in action, offering a way back into France.
The military personnel were directing traffic and helping a mass testing programme for the drivers, who must test negative to enter France. French firefighters have also been drafted to help the military test drivers for coronavirus. Poland’s Territorial Defence Force also sent reinforcements to help with testing and food distribution.
British Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said he had instructed the army to take control of testing as part of efforts to get foreign hauliers home with their families as quickly as we can.
Officials from the transport department have said that all but three of the tests conducted so far have been negative. Those testing positive are being offered accommodation. Most of the testing is being conducted at a disused airfield at Manston Airport, 20 miles from Dover.
France closed its border for 48 hours to the UK last Sunday after British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said a variant of the virus that is 70pc more transmissible is driving the rapid spread of infections in London and surrounding areas. As a result, the capital and many other parts of England have seen lockdown restrictions tightened and family holiday gatherings canceled.
Free food and drink was being sent to the stranded truck drivers and more than 250 portable toilets were put in at Manston, with 32 others placed along the gridlocked M20 highway. Britain’s coast guard said its teams in the Dover area had so far delivered 3,000 hot meals, 600 pizzas and 2,985 packed lunches.
Published in Dawn, December 26th, 2020