Thousands of international lorry drivers are braced to spend Christmas Day cooped up in their cabs at the English Channel border as slow progress was made to return hauliers home to their loved ones.
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 severe disruption at the Port of Dover.
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.”