Lorry drivers held in vast queues in Kent since Sunday have clashed with police amid rising tensions while the archbishop of Canterbury demanded government action over the “unacceptable” situation.
Ministers said that, while testing for coronavirus had started to ease a logjam caused by a 48-hour border closure imposed by France, it may take the rest of the week to get the thousands of drivers through.
Footage from Wednesday morning showed police officers trying to push back a small crowd of mostly men in Dover, where lorry drivers have been forced to wait since French authorities closed the border in an attempt to stop the spread of the new coronavirus variant discovered in the UK.
Kent police said one man was arrested for obstructing a highway. Further scuffles were seen later in the day and several men were led away in handcuffs.
As many as 10,000 lorries were estimated to be backed up around ports on England’s south coast, including at a lorry park at Manston airfield, where 170 army personnel were called in to help with the NHS-led effort to test drivers that got under way on Wednesday morning.
The British Retail Consortium (BRC) warned there may be shortages of some fresh goods until the backlog of lorries is cleared.
While the border has reopened, the communities secretary, Robert Jenrick, told Sky News it could take a few days to clear the backlog because of the need to test drivers for Covid-19 before French authorities will allow them to cross.
“The massive backlog of vehicles will take time to clear and hundreds of drivers run the risk of not getting home in time for Christmas,” said the chief executive of the Road Haulage Association (RHA), Richard Burnett.
On Wednesday evening, Anglican leaders in Kent – including the archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby – said they were “dismayed by the situation in Dover”.
They said: “We recognise the need to take urgent precautions to slow the spread of the new strain of coronavirus. But to leave seasonal workers, families and some truck drivers without adequate food and sanitary facilities is unacceptable – both for those stranded and for the people of Dover.”
They applauded the efforts of local authority workers but said: “This is a national issue and the government needs to intervene decisively. The necessary provisions must be given for people to endure this ordeal with their dignity intact, making sure enough Covid tests are available so drivers and workers can return home as soon as possible.”
The RHA put the number of vehicles in Kent and its surrounding areas, in lorry stops and at depots, at between 8,000 and 10,000. The Department for Transport (DfT) said the number was more like 5,000, though the government has previously vastly underestimated the scale of the queues.
“Whatever the number is, whether it is 4,000 or more, it is a significant number to work through,” Jenrick acknowledged as he advised hauliers not to travel to Kent.
He said drivers would receive rapid lateral flow tests, which can give results in about 30 minutes, followed by a PCR test if they come back positive. Those who return a second positive result would be offered “Covid-secure” hotel accommodation. Jenrick said he hoped HGVs would begin crossing the Channel on Wednesday morning.
The transport secretary, Grant Shapps, has announced a temporary relaxation of drivers’ hours for hauliers, increasing the driving limit of nine hours to 11, to help them get through UK borders safely over the coming weeks.
French authorities relaxed their ban on travel from the UK, saying delivery drivers and other professionals who had to travel could cross the border provided they showed proof of a negative test in the past 72 hours. EU nationals or those with EU permanent residency can also travel.
At least 40 countries have imposed flight bans because of the variant, believed to be up to 70% more contagious.