New permits, a potential no-deal Brexit, the Christmas rush moving online: British lorry drivers and hauliers had plenty to deal with as the UK approaches 31 December, when its current trading arrangement with the EU comes to an end.
But on Sunday evening, France closed its borders to freight traffic from the UK for 48 hours as a precautionary measure against the spread of a new strain of coronavirus.
Although long-made plans to deal with traffic problems have kicked in and there’s been reassurance on fresh food supplies for Christmas, the move heaps additional strain on truckers who were already dealing with delays.
So what have journeys been like for those on the road?
‘It’s put a lot of miles on the clock’
Cameron Caesar previously worked as an Emergency Care Assistant on ambulances, having only taken up a full-time job as a lorry driver for a small, family-run, firm five months ago.
He had been due to make his first international crossing from Dover on Sunday evening.
“So far, we’ve always had travel ban exemptions for freight. Once I saw the news, I phoned my boss and said I think we have a problem!”, he says. “It was totally unexpected.”
Thanks to a quick change of plans, Cameron redirected towards Hull, where he is booked on a ferry to Rotterdam on Monday evening. His high-value shipment of pharmaceutical goods should arrive in France on Tuesday afternoon, about one day late.
“It’s put a lot of miles on the clock and there are a lot of extra costs involved. It is an exceptional situation, but it’s put the prices up quite a bit for the customer.”
Mr Caesar is also concerned about his return journey home for Christmas. If France does insist that all drivers need to be tested before being allowed to cross the Channel, it’s likely some won’t make it back for the festivities.
But, he says at least he has some home comforts in his cab: “I’ve got more than I have at home! A microwave, a George Foreman grill, a Playstation… It’s good to have it kitted out and they do really look after us because of how long we can be away for.”
‘It’s getting out which is the issue’
Paul from Peterborough loaded his lorry in Belgium on Sunday evening and got a ferry from Dunkirk to Dover.
He said that the process went relatively smoothly: “We were held up a little bit at the port because the authorities wanted to wait until there were enough trucks for a two-way sailing, with the return from Dover back to Dunkirk empty.”
While he and his colleagues managed to avoid lengthy delays, Paul is reluctant to head back to mainland Europe before Christmas.
“When I came up the road today – I saw Spanish, French, Dutch trucks all parked up. The ones that are sat on the M20, facing a two-day – or even four-day trip to Poland or Lithuania – most of them might not get back home in time, particularly if they celebrate on Christmas Eve.
“It’s those drivers you’ve got to feel for,” he says.
Despite the queues he saw on his return, he believes that there is no reason for shoppers to panic-buy fresh food.
“Currently, it’s just getting out of the UK that’s the issue. We’re still importing things – and those people who are saying we’re going to run out of produce, it’s just not true.”
‘Drivers just want to get home’
“People focus on the goods, but in this country, we’re doing nothing for those drivers,” says Phil Houlton.
The operations director at DWP & Sons, a haulage firm based in Stoke-on-Trent, says that it currently has three drivers who were stuck in queues on the M20 for about 14 hours.
“Guess what? If they want to go to the toilet, they’ve got to dig a hole at the side of the road. It’s 2020, that’s so undignified. If it wasn’t for the fact they have self-sufficient cabs – microwaves, coffee machines – they’d have nothing.”
Some drivers have been diverted so freight can be transported unaccompanied, such as containers or lorry trailers on their own. These can still be transported from the UK to France. Others got stuck on the other side of the Channel.
While the firm has been preparing for a potential “no-deal” Brexit for months, Mr Houlton’s primary concern is now ensuring the wellbeing of the drivers who are stuck.
“All of them want to get home and spend time with their families. It’s only a couple of times a year where truck drivers want to be home and Christmas is one of them,” he says.
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