‘Frustrated’ Dover officials blame ‘lengthy French border processes’ as travellers stranded for over 16 hours

Officials at the Port of Dover say they are “deeply frustrated” about significant traffic delays that have seen thousands of travellers queueing for up to 16 hours as the Easter getaway begins.

A critical incident was declared overnight on Friday, and operators P&O Ferries and DFDS Seaways reported delays to ferry and coach services, citing bad weather and hold-ups at French border control as partly responsible.

In a statement on Saturday, the port blamed the delays on “lengthy French border processes and [the] sheer volume” of people travelling.

Traffic at the Port of Dover in Kent as the Easter getaway begins (PA Wire)
Traffic at the Port of Dover in Kent as the Easter getaway begins (PA Wire)

It said: “Despite considerable pre-planning with our ferry operators, border agency partners and the Kent Resilience Forum, and the success of similar plans for processing substantial numbers of coaches during the most recent half-term period, the additional coach bookings taken by ferry operators for Easter have impacted operations for the port.”

Later on Saturday morning, a spokesperson said that queues were easing and it was taking approximately two to three hours for coaches to clear the relevant checks, and around one to two hours for cars.

By the afternoon, the port’s chief executive Doug Bannister suggested that operations might not return to normal until Sunday morning.

In a tweet, P&O Ferries apologised for the delays but said it had “no control over the processes at border control” and “cannot confirm how long it will take to pass through”.

DFDS said it would be operating a cross-Channel shuttle service, whereby all passengers would be shipped on the first available departure after their arrival at check-in.

A number of coaches stuck in the backlog are carrying schoolchildren on Easter holiday trips.

Simon Lyons, a passenger on a coach taking his son’s football team to Amsterdam, said his party had been told they were 48th in the queue to board the ferry – but still faced up to eight hours of waiting to reach France.

“The current ferries aren’t departing, though, because there’s so much traffic in the area they can’t get people into the terminal itself,” he told Sky News. “The staff here are being very friendly and helpful, but what they’re telling us is that there is a real lack of French border staff trying to get people checked and into the terminal.”

Staff, however, were “entirely” blaming Brexit, he added, given that coaches can no longer merely be “waved on” to the ferry.

There is “no movement whatsoever” on the roads around the port, with traffic “just back to back”, Mr Lyons said, calling the situation “a real disaster”.

Rosie Pearson, a 50-year-old environmental campaigner from Essex, who had persuaded her family to take the coach rather than fly to France, said the situation was “absolute carnage”, having been stuck at the port for 16 hours with her husband and their two teenage children.

The Port of Dover has declared a critical incident (PA Wire)
The Port of Dover has declared a critical incident (PA Wire)

“The whole thing was a shambles ... the worst thing was that no one told us anything for the whole 16 hours, literally nothing,” Ms Pearson said.

Dafydd Francis, a PE teacher from Seven Sisters, was one of 33 people travelling from South Wales to Saalbach-Hinterglemm in Austria. His group arrived at the port at 11pm on Friday and were still awaiting boarding by Saturday lunchtime.

“[I’ve] never seen anything like this,” the 49-year-old said. “We will arrive at the resort 14 hours late if we are lucky ... We all feel angry but shellshocked at the situation.”

Travellers also aired their frustrations on Twitter, saying the delays had put a damper on the start of the Easter break.

One person said she had been stuck in a queue for 18 hours and counting, while another criticised P&O Ferries for a lack of support.

Louise Hancock tweeted: “My daughter’s been on a bus since 10am yesterday morning and will now lose the first night of her trip due to this.

Lorries are queueing on the A20 to get to the Port of Dover (PA Wire)
Lorries are queueing on the A20 to get to the Port of Dover (PA Wire)

“She is tired and hasn’t eaten since yesterday lunchtime with no proper food provided, what you have made these kids endure isn’t acceptable.”

The port’s chief executive apologised for the delays, which he said had left up to 40 coaches waiting in queues overnight, but insisted that the backlog of coaches built up on Friday was being tackled, telling Sky News: “We’ve been processing really well this morning.”

Stating that around 400 coaches were expected on Saturday after roughly the same number on Friday, Mr Bannister said: “Because we have only half the volume booked for tomorrow, given the speed with which we’re processing today, I’m anticipating that we should be back to normal operations overnight or into tomorrow morning.”

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer urged the government to “get a grip” on the situation at Dover.

“I really feel for people trying to get through Dover. There will have been families who have booked holidays, and now they are frustrated yet again, and I think the nature of the frustration will be ‘Not again.’

“You can’t have every summer holiday, every Easter holiday, the same old problem. And so the government needs to get a grip on this and actually help people out, who are just trying to get away for a few days’ holiday.”

The Independent’s travel correspondent Simon Calder warned on Saturday that one of the key reasons for the backlog – namely a delay in processing passports, which is a result of Brexit – is only going to get worse.

He wrote: “We asked [by voting for Brexit] to become subject to the ‘90/180-day’ rule, which means that our stays in the EU are strictly limited. For that to be policed, passports must be stamped – with, in theory, every page being examined for evidence of a recent stay in Europe.

“For a coachload of 50 people that is going to take a very long time, and if dozens of coaches are heading for Dover, trouble awaits.”