LONDON – Thousands of truck drivers arrested in the UK on Wednesday had a faint glimmer of hope that they could be home at Christmas after European authorities eased travel restrictions imposed in response to the emergence of a mutant coronavirus strain .
The British military was called in to help resolve the congestion caused by convoys of trucks that snaked on roads near Dover, the main ferry port in France and the mainland.
“We are setting up the infrastructure. Therefore, the Armed Forces will be [Covid testing] in the first instance, to help us establish this and overcome some of the issues you’ve seen, “housing secretary Robert Jenrick told Sky News.
Paris and London agreed on Tuesday that Covid-19-negative drivers could board ferries to France. The decision came after much of the world closed its borders with Britain to contain the new mutation.
The Road Haulage Association estimated that there were even 10,000 trucks with backup near the port.
Covid’s new variant is apparently so infectious that it has led Prime Minister Boris Johnson to cancel Christmas in millions.
The discovery of the variant, which may be 70% more transmissible than the original, in places like Denmark, Belgium, Italy and Australia just months before vaccines were widely available, sowed a new wave of fear around the world.
In Dover, frustrations spread on Wednesday when some angry drivers clashed with the police. Many drivers blew their horns in unison and flashed the lights in frustration.
Although the authorities gave the green light for the trucks to move, Raluca Marian of the International Road Transport Union, a world road transport agency, told the BBC that the logistics of the mass tests would be “a disaster”.
Marian warned that the 30-minute tests for thousands of drivers may not see the lines free until New Year’s Eve.
“We are happy that we finally have an agreement, that the borders are open, but at the same time this test is a big challenge for us and we don’t think it will work – the build-up cannot be resolved,” she said.
A gentle, curry-like gesture made it easier for some to wait.
Members of the UK-based Sikh international aid organization, Khalsa Aid, distributed water bottles, snacks and 800 hot meals of rice and chickpeas curry to drivers, they said on Twitter, earning public praise in the season of goodwill.
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Border chaos comes just days before Britain finally left the European Union on December 31, with both sides still negotiating a last-minute trade deal.
The panic buying was underway at some supermarkets in the capital, London, which is under England’s most stringent blocking measures, while Brexit is expected to cause further disruption in January, when a full customs border will come into effect.
On Tuesday, the European Commission said that a general UK travel ban should be eased and people returning home should be allowed to do so. However, border controls are governed by national policy, so each EU country can establish its own rules.
Reuters contributed to this report.
Matthew Mulligan contributed.