But the deal requires people to have evidence of a negative Covid-19 test done in the last 72 hours, which gets a shred of testing drivers expected to pull the British military and National Health Service (NHS).
Just two trucks had arrived at the French port of Calais late Wednesday morning, a CNN reporter told reporters, where thousands were still lined up on a motorway and at a disused airport in south-east England.
A test regime allowing transport companies to leave the UK has been quickly organized with 170 military personnel deployed to conduct mass tests on the ground. But there were few signs of it visible Wednesday morning, with police advising motorists to be tested either via the NHS or at Kent’s Manston Airport.
And tensions created between some drivers and officials, with crowds of carriers shouting and arguing with authorities about the standstill, access to testing and the lack of facilities in Dover Harbor on Wednesday. When dawn broke Wednesday morning, visibly frustrated drivers complained to police officers about the lack of toilet facilities. “No shower, no toilet, nothing,” one said.
Later in the day, a CNN team witnessed a mobile test unit arrive at the port. Still, the day ended when it began, with anxiety growing among those drivers desperate to get home for the holiday season.
At least two people were arrested when fights broke out between police and truck drivers in the port city. Footage showed police using batons to push back truck drivers – though it is still unclear what triggered the incident.
Nearly 5,000 trucks are waiting to cross the border, according to the Kent Resilience Forum, which tackles emergencies, in scenes that could anticipate further Brexit-related unrest in the new year. On Tuesday, Highways England estimated that there were another 900 in lattice locks on the nearby M20 motorway, and hundreds more were stuck at Manston Airport, which was taken into use as a car park.
The period leading up to Christmas is traditionally a busy time for trade, as fresh produce from Europe is imported during the festive period.
Meanwhile, the impact of the new coronavirus variant was still felt across the UK. On Wednesday, Health Secretary Matt Hancock announced that several regions would be placed under the harshest coronavirus restrictions from December 26th.
It comes after Prime Minister Boris Johnson effectively canceled millions of Britons’ Christmas plans on Saturday by imposing “tier 4” restrictions on London and the South East, despite promising for weeks that he would not prevent families from reuniting for the holidays .
And in a further headache, Hancock confirmed on Wednesday that yet another variant of the coronavirus – this one first identified in South Africa – has been found in two people in the UK. He instructed anyone who has spent time in South Africa in the last 15 days or knows anyone who has done so to quarantine immediately.
Exciting scenes at the border
The crisis at the British border is clear from the ground – where angry disputes between officials and drivers took place on Wednesday – and from the air with images of seemingly endless lines of trucks spray-painted over British newspapers.
“We see no tests coming, no water, no food, (and) we are crammed on top of each other,” Vanessa Ibarlucea, spokeswoman for the French National Road Haulage Federation, told CNN on Wednesday.
“We expect some drivers to be stuck on the other side of the holiday,” she said.
The crossing between Dover and the French city of Calais, which serves as a major European trading pulse and handles around 17% of UK goods imports, was halted following the announcement. The closure caused many British supermarket shelves to be emptied into scenes reminiscent of the early days of the pandemic.
According to a statement from the UK Department of Transportation, access would now be granted to France “those traveling for urgent reasons – including carriers – French nationals and British nationals with a French residence permit” after an agreement was reached on Tuesday night.
This new protocol will be revised on 31 December and may remain in place until 6 January. All truck drivers are required to take an antigen test that can detect the new strain of Covid-19 and give results in less than an hour, according to the statement.
But police told truck drivers they are not yet allowed to cross, even though they have a negative test on Wednesday, claiming instruction came from French authorities. An officer also told CNN that some drivers had been shown fraudulent test results.
“People are crazy and nervous right now because (we) are pretty sure we’ll not reach our families for Christmas,” a driver from Poland told CNN on Wednesday.
The driver, named Greg, described a tumultuous scene as some waited to be tested at Manston Airport while others waited to hear if members of the NHS Test and Trace service would be deployed.
“We’ve been here since Monday morning and there’s no information … they send us to the airport where there are 4,000 trucks and there are no tests,” he said. “They’re doing some testing somewhere, I’m not sure where … why is there no testing here?”
The impact of the disruption is likely to be felt by UK consumers for several days, experts said. “While working extremely fast and with Calais possibly closed for Christmas Day, it is clear that it may take until the New Year to return to normal operation,” Ian Wright, chief executive of the UK Food and Drink Federation, said on Wednesday.
“That means we’re likely to see locally reduced availability on the shelf of some fresh vegetables and fruits from next week. We’ll also see a potentially significant disruption to the flow of ingredients to the UK,” he added.