A team of French firefighters have been sent to Dover to help clear huge queues of lorries waiting to cross the Channel after the British government failed to provide sufficient coronavirus testing capacity.
Ministers had promised to get the queues moving by Wednesday morning after drivers were left waiting in their cabs for days. But it has emerged that fewer than 100 of the thousands of waiting vehicles were able to cross the Channel that day.
The government said more than 2,000 tests had been carried out by Thursday lunchtime, but the Port of Dover said only 700 lorries had managed to begin the crossing.
While it had been clear by Tuesday that French authorities would require a negative test result from each of the thousands of drivers waiting to cross, the port said the UK testing effort initially operated only at Manston airfield, one of the sites where queues formed, and that problems getting the testing kits there had severely restricted capacity.
It took until Thursday to get the tests out to the port and the surrounding roads where many more of the lorries were waiting, it said. The communities secretary, Robert Jenrick, had said the queues would be moving by Wednesday morning, though he cautioned that it would take days to get everyone through.
The transport secretary, Grant Shapps, said 2,367 tests had been carried out as of midday on Thursday, with 2,364 negative results and three positive. “As the EU transport commissioner has tweeted, testing hauliers is not recommended. Spending days in a lorry on your own puts you in an extremely low-risk category.”
Shapps said the border at Dover, the Eurotunnel and Calais would remain open throughout Christmas to get hauliers cleared “as soon as possible”, with the help of 10,000 more tests brought in by 26 French firefighters on Thursday morning.
Shapps promised that ferries would sail on Christmas Day and Boxing Day to help unblock the logjam caused by a 48-hour border closure imposed by France in an attempt to stop the new hyper-infective Covid variant from crossing the Channel.
France’s ambassador to the UK, Catherine Colonna, tweeted that the two countries were “neighbours, partners, allies and (yes) friends”. She posted a picture with the hashtags #StrongerTogether and #thursdayvibes showing the orange-jacketed firefighter, or pompiers, carrying out Covid tests on hauliers before dawn on Thursday.
There were rising tensions at the port on Wednesday as lorry drivers, many of whom had been stuck in Dover for more than 48 hours with limited resources, remonstrated with UK officials.
The Road Haulage Association estimated that between 8,000 and 10,000 lorries had been caught up in the queues that started forming around ports on England’s south coast when the border was closed on Sunday. The government said it believed the number to be closer to 6,000, though ministers have previously vastly underestimated it.
The Department for Transport said French authorities had been called in not because of failures on the UK’s part, saying they were there as part of a collaborative effort. The French embassy in the UK was contacted for comment.