Army called in to help 5,000 lorry drivers stranded in their cabs for Christmas Day after border chaos

THE Army has been called in to lend a helping hand to the 5,000 truckers left stranded in their cabs on Christmas Day.

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps announced hundreds of soldiers would be deployed to help the repatriation operation in Kent after French coronavirus restrictions introduced following the discovery of a fast-spreading mutant Covid-19 strain in the UK caused border chaos at the Port of Dover.

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Around 700 hauliers have been cleared for departure since the borders reopened on Wednesday – and a chorus of beeping horns sounded at the Port of Dover on Christmas Eve as those at the front of the queue celebrated finally being able to leave.

However, around 5,000 remain unable to get home, despite some progress made in testing drivers holed up in their vehicles at nearby Manston Airport, on a closed section of the M20, and in Dover itself.

Some have already spent nearly a week stranded due to the diplomatic impasse.

Mr Shapps said: "We need to get the situation in Kent, caused by the French Government's sudden imposition of Covid restrictions, resolved as soon as possible.

"I have today sent special instructions to the Army to take control of testing and HGV management operations in the county. Our aim is to get foreign hauliers home with their families as quickly as we can.

"I know it's been hard for many drivers cooped up in their cabs at this precious time of year, but I assure them that we are doing our utmost to get them home."

The Department for Transport (DfT) said all but three of the 2,367 coronavirus tests issued to hauliers have been negative – a stipulation of travel introduced by French authorities.

More than 300 soldiers will be brought in to take charge of testing and lorry marshalling to clear the backlog.

The government said catering vans would be brought in to provide complementary hot food and drinks to stranded hauliers at Manston, with Kent Council and volunteer groups providing refreshments to those stuck on the M20.

There are more than 250 toilets at Manston, with a further 32 portable toilets added to existing toilets already along the M20.

A Port of Dover spokesman said ferry services would continue running throughout the night and on Christmas Day to help ease congestion.

Traffic is moving more quickly at the Eurotunnel, where more than 1,000 vehicles left on Wednesday night, with around 2,000 more expected to depart by the end of Thursday.

But many will remain there for Christmas Day, according to Duncan Buchanan, a policy director at the Road Haulage Association (RHA).

Mr Buchanan said: "The most reassuring thing is that food is getting through at Manston, and I have to say a big thank you to everyone who volunteered to help drivers stick it out in cold conditions in the days leading up to Christmas."

Furious drivers clashed with cops this week as tensions hit boiling point – despite the border to France finally reopening after its 48-hour blockade.

Yesterday, there were 4,000 trucks waiting in huge queues. But around 2,000 more joined long lines earlier today, despite the Government urging hauliers to stay away from Kent.

Some drivers are facing a fourth night sleeping and eating in their cabs after the border was temporarily closed on Sunday night.

Trucks began entering the Eurotunnel again on Wednesday after the French government agreed to allow drivers through provided they had a negative Covid result.

However, it's feared it could take days to carry out tests on the hauliers.

As of midday, 2,367 tests have been carried out.

Of that number, three have been positive.

It comes after some of the drivers protested by blocking roads near the lorry holding facility at Manston Airport, where there have been complaints over a lack of food and toilets.

Mr Shapps told the BBC: "The issue is just the logistics of people following the instructions and making sure we can keep the port clear in order that we can get the traffic rolling.

"The more that people follow the clear instructions the faster we can get this resolved.

"It will take a matter of days rather than weeks or anything else but there will be, I'm afraid, some patience required."

He added the Government was providing "welfare" for the lorry drivers stuck at the border and would continue to do so in the days to come.

The disused airfield site at Manston has become the main testing centre for hauliers, with drivers required to self-administer the tests in their cabs under supervision.

Adina Valean, the European Union's transport commissioner, said she was pleased stranded trucks are now moving "slowly across the Channel" after Covid restrictions between France and the UK were lifted.

"I am pleased that at this moment, we have trucks slowly crossing the Channel, and I want to thank UK authorities that they started testing the drivers at a capacity of 300 tests per hour," Ms Valean tweeted.

"I deplore that France went against our recommendations and brought us back to the situation we were in in March when the supply chains were interrupted."

Kent Police said one man was arrested on Wednesday for obstructing a highway in Dover. A police car was also damaged during a disturbance at Manston, the force added.

Yesterday, Kent Council leader Roger Gough told Sky News tensions between police and drivers had calmed down but added the situation remained "quite fragile".

He added he expected the number of lorries entering the Eurotunnel to "pick up" rapidly.

France imposed the travel ban in response to fears about the spread of the more infectious coronavirus strain, which is spreading in the UK.

Hauliers must be able to show proof of a negative test result carried out within the past 72 hours in order to be able to cross into France.

All truck drivers, regardless of nationality, will be required to take a lateral flow test which can detect the new strain of Covid-19 and return results in about 30 minutes, the Road Haulage Association (RHA) said.

Those who test positive will be moved into Covid-secure hotel accommodation to self-isolate for 10 days.

Richard Burnett, head of the RHA, told the BBC drivers are being treated as "pawns in a larger game" – and asked: "Are they going to be held here until Boxing Day or beyond?"

"It just feels like it's a lever the French have pulled specifically around the Brexit negotiations," he said.

Yesterday, drivers told of their heartbreak at spending Christmas Day away from their homes.

Wojtek Golawski, from Lukow in Poland, was forced to call to his pregnant wife and daughters to tell them he was unlikely to make it home for Christmas.

The 34-year-old, who has two girls aged three and five, said: “It means that I'm not going to make it home to my daughters and to my wife, who is seven months pregnant.

“I had to make a very tough phone call to her earlier this evening to say that the problems in England meant I would have to miss Christmas this year.

“She and the girls were very upset and so was I.

"It's going to be depressing celebrating it on my own in the same lorry cab I've spent the last two nights sleeping in.”

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