Miles of lorry queues and travel chaos were expected across Kent on Monday morning after France announced a 48-hour ban on passengers and freight entering from the UK.
The prime minister, Boris Johnson, is to chair a Cobra meeting on Monday that will address “the steady flow of freight into and out of the UK”, a number 10 spokesperson said, amid expected significant disruption at ports in the south-east.
The European Union is to hold a similar crisis meeting today to coordinate its response to concerns about a fast-spreading new strain of Covid-19 after countries across the continent banned UK flight arrivals.
The UK transport secretary, Grant Shapps, warned of “significant disruption” following the snap travel ban that came into force on Sunday night. As a result of the announcement from Paris, Kent police implemented Operation Stack, where lorries will queue between junctions eight and 11 of the M20, southbound, to avoid gridlock on the county’s roads.
A No 10 spokesman said: “The prime minister will chair a Cobra meeting tomorrow to discuss the situation regarding international travel, in particular the steady flow of freight into and out of the UK.”
The Department for Transport (DfT) said Manston Airport in Kent was being prepared to accommodate up to 4,000 lorries as another measure to ease the congestion. However due to the expected level of disruption, DfT also advised hauliers to avoid travel to Kent ports until further notice.
“Following the French government’s announcement it will not accept any passengers arriving from the UK for the next 48hrs, we’re asking the public & particularly hauliers not to travel to Kent ports or other routes to France,” Shapps tweeted. “My department is urgently working with Highways England and Kent Council on contingency measures to minimise traffic disruption in the area.”
All ports should be avoided, police said, including Eurotunnel. The M20 will be closed between junctions 8-11, including all entry slips at 8, 9,10 and 10a, Highways England said. They advised alternate routes for local traffic and instructed all freight traffic to use the M20 to enter the “stack”.
The Road Haulage Association (RHA) warned of the “devastating effect” of the ban on supply chains that are already under pressure from Brexit and Christmas stockpiling.
On Sunday night, the RHA said Brittany Ferries could not long take outbound traffic, but inbound traffic was unaffected. It said P&O was taking “unaccompanied only” loads from Dover to Calais, but the return route was operating as normal. It said routes from to Hull to Rotterdam and Zeebrugge continued to operate as normal, as did the Liverpool-to-Dublin route.
Dover/Calais is a major UK/EU crossing point and we’ve already seen massive queues. Brexit stockpiling is one thing, the Christmas rush is another but to close borders for 48 hrs is a real hammer blow to the all-important supply chain @RHARodMcKenzie @SkyNews pic.twitter.com/C4Lru6McWh
— RHA News (@RHANews) December 20, 2020
RHA’s international group manager, Heather Wallace, said any attempt to get trucks out and back to France before Christmas was going to be extremely challenging and to expect long delays once the ban was lifted.
The logistics company Cold Chain Federation called on authorities to consider the impact of the delays of drivers who may be stuck for days. “This decision will impact first and foremost on hundreds of drivers,” said chief executive, Shane Brennan. “We urge the authorities on all sides to consider their welfare above all else.”
The freight ban will have severe ramifications for UK trade, which in in recent days has seen around 10,000 lorries passing through the port of Dover every 24 hours.
Much of the trade passing through the Channel ports consists of perishable goods which need to reach their destination quickly.
Andrew Opie from the British Retail Consortium, said: “The closure of France to UK traffic, including accompanied freight, poses difficulties for UK capacity to import and export key goods during the busy Christmas period.”
He suggested that while goods could still enter the UK from France, it may be that few haulage firms would be willing to send trucks and drivers across to the UK without a guarantee they can return to the EU in a timely manner.
The Scottish seafood exporter Lochfyne said the closure of the French border the week before Christmas was a “disaster”.
A spokesman said on Twitter: “There will be Vivier trucks from all over Scotland heading in that direction, millions of pounds worth of seafood at the time of the most important market of the year the last one before Xmas.
“Even if we get through 48 hours later we will miss the Xmas deadline, this is unbelievable.”
The Scottish first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, called for an extension to the Brexit transition period because of the crisis sparked by the new coronavirus strain.
“The new Covid strain – & the various implications of it – means we face a profoundly serious situation, & it demands our 100% attention. It would be unconscionable to compound it with Brexit,” Sturgeon said.
On Sunday Brexit negotiators inched towards a compromise on fishing rights but missed a major deadline, raising the prospect of weeks without arrangements from 1 January even in the event of agreement. Talks will continue on Monday.
On Sunday night, Gatwick was packed with last-minute travellers, including some attempting to fly on complicated transit routes via eastern Europe, to reach destinations that had already closed borders. Many were denied boarding as regulations changed by the hour.
France, Germany, Italy, Switzerland, Portugal, Belgium, Austria, Bulgaria, Denmark, Finland, Romania, Croatia and the Netherlands have all said they would ban flights arriving from the UK. The Czech Republic has imposed stricter quarantine measures for people arriving from Britain.
As of midnight tonight (Berlin time), all flights from the UK to Germany are prohibited due to the coronavirus mutation. Click below for more information. https://t.co/IjTBugPww9
— German Embassy London (@GermanEmbassy) December 20, 2020
Each country has implemented differing restrictions, including when they start and for how long they last. Some measures affect only passenger travel, while others include freight.