About 1,000 British soldiers spent Christmas trying to clear a huge backlog of truck drivers trapped in south-east England after France briefly closed its border with Britain and then demanded coronavirus tests from everyone for fear of a new, apparently more contagious virus variant.
Although an estimated 4,000 or so international truck drivers spend another day in their cabins, some progress was made on Friday, with traffic around the English Channel port of Dover moving neatly towards the extra ferries that were added making the short crossing over to Calais in northern France. The railway operator Eurotunnel was also back in action and offered a way back to France.
The military staff controlled the traffic and helped a mass testing program for the drivers, who had to test negative to get into France. French firefighters have also been deployed to assist military coronavirus test drivers. Poland’s territorial defense 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 the testing as part of an effort to get “foreign carriers home with their families as soon as we can.”
Officials from the transport department have said that all but three of the tests carried out so far have been negative. Those who test positive are offered accommodation. Most of the testing is carried out at a disused airport at Manston Airport, 33 kilometers from Dover.
France closed its border for 48 hours to Britain last Sunday after British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said a variant of the virus that is 70% 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 that restrictions on lock-in have been tightened and family holidays have been interrupted.
Free food and drink were sent to the stranded truck drivers and more than 250 portable toilets were placed in Manston, with 32 others placed along the M1 motorway. The UK Coast Guard said its Dover area team had so far delivered 3,000 hot meals, 600 pizzas and 2,885 packed lunches.
“The most reassuring thing is that the food goes through in Manston, and I have to say a big thank you to everyone who voluntarily helped drivers stick it out in cold conditions during the days leading up to Christmas,” said Duncan Buchanan of the UK Road Transport Association.
The mood among the stranded drivers seemed to be most worrying, especially compared to their anger earlier this week over the situation and the lack of facilities.
The virus has been linked to more than 1.7 million confirmed deaths worldwide. On Friday, the UK registered another 570 virus-related deaths, totaling 70,195, the second highest number of deaths in Europe after Italy.
On Saturday, the UK will extend stricter locking restrictions to more areas as authorities try to stop the spread of the new variant. In the last two days, the UK has registered its two highest daily infection rates, just under 40,000. It is worrying that the country’s beloved national health service will soon face acute capacity problems in its hospitals and thousands more will die from the virus.
In a video message to the nation, Johnson said that this Christmas “was not about presents or turkey or brandy butter” but about hope, in the form of coronavirus vaccine shots being delivered and more vaccines being developed.
“We know that there will be people alive next Christmas, people we love, alive next Christmas precisely because we made the sacrifice and did not celebrate this Christmas as normal,” the prime minister said.
Johnson said on Thursday that more than 800,000 people in the UK had received the first dose of the vaccine developed by the American pharmaceutical company Pfizer and the German biotechnology company BioNTech. The UK was the first country in the world to approve the vaccine and began vaccinating health workers and people over the age of 80 on 8 December.