France will on Wednesday morning reopen its borders with the UK to lorry drivers who test negative for Covid-19, after closing the route for 48 hours to prepare measures against a new strain of the virus in England.
The sudden closure of French frontiers to all travellers from the UK on Sunday night had severely disrupted the crucial freight routes between the UK and Europe across the Channel by ferry and the Channel Tunnel.
Only French and EU citizens or residents with an essential reason to travel who show a negative Covid-19 test result less than 72 hours old will be allowed into France until at least January 6.
The British army will be deployed to test lorry drivers in a vast logistical operation starting on Wednesday morning, but ministers admit the backlog of thousands of vehicles will take several days to clear.
France said it would not insist on so-called PCR tests, which typically take at least a day to return results, but would demand that tests be sensitive to the new variant.
British officials persuaded Paris that on-the-spot 20-minute lateral flow tests for Covid-19 could be used for hauliers, rather than PCR tests that take much longer to process and could have led to big delays at the border.
More than 50 countries in the EU and beyond have banned travel from the UK after Boris Johnson, UK prime minister, issued a warning about the highly infectious new coronavirus variant.
The decision by Jean Castex, France’s prime minister, to reopen the borders will allow freight movements to resume across the “short strait”, the UK’s main trade route for time-sensitive deliveries, including fresh food.
The UK was preparing to introduce lateral flow tests at a makeshift lorry park at the Manston air base and at the roadside in Kent, where trucks have been held in huge queues.
Grant Shapps, UK transport secretary, welcomed the agreement of the new protocol with France, but said: “We continue to urge hauliers not to travel to Kent until further notice as we work to alleviate congestion at ports.”
Duncan Buchanan of Britain’s Road Haulage Association said he expected up to 7,000 lorries in the UK to be waiting to use the crossing, not just in the coastal county of Kent but also those waiting in depots.
Some British officials believe one factor in President Emmanuel Macron’s decision to abruptly close the border was a desire to give Britain a taste of what a no-deal Brexit might look like when the transition period ends on January 1.
Mr Macron’s office had said there was no connection with Brexit and that the borders were closed for health reasons. “It’s not about taking revenge, it’s about taking responsibility,” said one French official.
Thousands of European truck drivers, almost 1,000 of them French, are stuck on the English side of the Channel, according to transport companies.
But the chairman of one major fresh-food supplier said many vehicles had yet to set off for the Channel ports. “What you see on the television is a fraction of the true picture . . . there are thousands of trucks in lay-bys and depots waiting to head back to Dover,” he said.
Retail industry executives had warned officials at the UK’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs that some fresh fruit and other products could start to run out by the end of the week.
Andrew Opie of the British Retail Consortium said that while “everybody’s Christmas dinner is safe”, the supply chain needed to start moving. “If we don’t see trucks getting back over the Channel, they will not be able to pick up the next consignments of fresh fruit and vegetables [from Europe] that we rely on this time of year.”
Lufthansa will on Wednesday add a special cargo-only flight carrying 80 tonnes of perishable food, including fruit and vegetables, from Frankfurt to Sheffield to help meet demand.
Tesco, the UK’s leading supermarket chain, said it was introducing more item limits on certain product lines.
Customers can now buy only one pack of toilet roll and up to three items of fresh eggs, rice, soap and handwash. These restrictions are in addition to the per-item caps on flour, dried pasta, baby wipes and anti-bacterial wipes that have been in place since September.
However, in an email to members of its Clubcard loyalty scheme, the company urged customers to “shop as you normally would” and said it had good stock levels.
“We continue to have good availability on the small number of fresh products such as lettuce, cauliflower and citrus fruit that we import from France at this time of year,” it wrote.
Most of the south-east of England, including London, is currently in effect under lockdown, in the government’s highest tier 4 level of restrictions, with only essential shops open.
Patrick Vallance, the UK’s chief scientific adviser, on Monday warned that the new strain was spreading across the country and was likely to force more areas into tougher restrictions.
Brussels had earlier on Tuesday urged EU member states to ditch blanket travel bans on the UK. Didier Reynders, EU justice commissioner, said: “Blanket travel bans should not prevent thousands of EU and UK citizens from returning to their homes.”