France and Britain agree to lift coronavirus ban on freight, travel

News from Brussels

Source: Politico, 2020-12-22

A ban on travel from the UK to France will be loosened, the two countries' governments said on 22 December.

From midnight, people crossing the border from the UK to France will be required to have a test to check if they are infected with COVID before they can travel, according to a statement from French Prime Minister Jean Castex.

Even then, the kinds of people allowed to travel from Britain to France will be restricted until 6 January. EU citizens, EU permanent residents and other categories such as truck drivers or train operators will be permitted to cross the border, provided that they have a negative test taken during the previous 72 hours.

France, along with more than 50 countries, imposed a ban on travel from Britain on 20 December after a more contagious variant of the COVID-19 virus was discovered in the UK Infection levels have rocketed in Britain in recent days, with Kent, the region which includes the Port of Dover, one of the areas worst affected.

The ban caused days-long tailbacks of thousands of goods vehicles, jamming the M20, a major British road and a crucial artery for trade into and out of the country. This triggered plans put in place to manage Brexit disruption ahead of time and, according to industry experts, could also hamper preparations to manage anticipated hold-ups when the transition periods ends on 31 December.

British Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said on Twitter on 22 December evening: "Good progress today and agreement with the French government on borders. We will provide an update on hauliers later this evening, but hauliers must still NOT travel to Kent this evening."

Laboratory test certificates, showing that a PCR test had been taken 72 hours before crossing the border, will be required to enter France from the UK under the new rules. The French government released a list of tests allowed, aside from the gold-standard PCR laboratory test. This is to ensure tests will be sensitive to the new variant of the virus discovered in the UK.

The decision followed a “conversation between the European Commission and Member States” and “constructive bilateral talks” between Paris and London, the statement said. The rules will remain in place “at least until 6 January.”

Earlier on 22 December, the European Commission recommended the lifting of flight and train bans imposed by EU countries to prevent the spread the new coronavirus strain from the UK. Transport workers should be freed from "any travel ban across any border and from testing and quarantine requirements," the Commission said. If EU countries do impose coronavirus tests, they should not lead to disruptions, it added.

People who are neither a citizen of the EU or a permanent EU resident are still forbidden to travel to France from the UK, aside from exceptions including long-term EU visa holders and workers involved in transportation of goods or people, whether by road, rail, air or sea.

However, haulage industry experts warn any test will slow traffic and cause significant trade delays. “These drivers are in a precarious situation,” Florence Berthelot, the general delegate of French road transport group FNTR, said on 22 December. Requiring a test before being allowed to cross the Channel would be “completely unacceptable” as it would mean even more delays. Germany's BGL industry association took the same line.

The two days of disruption already experienced by drivers at the border could affect some €2.2bn in exports between the UK and EU, hitting €1.4bn of EU goods and €800m in UK goods, according to figures from Euler Hermes, a trade credit insurance company.

The impact on freight is larger than some political statements have suggested, experts said on 22 December. Some 4,000 trucks and additional vans were caught up in the chaos, Duncan Buchanan, policy director at the UK's Road Haulage Association, told Members of the European Parliament.

They have been captured in striking aerial images of trucks snaking along the M20, the main artery leading to the Port of Dover and linking up at Manston Airport in Kent, which is being used as a giant truck park. 

There are 77 toilets at the airfield, according to a spokesperson at the Department of Transport, although there are hundreds of trucks stacking up. Drivers receive a two liter bottle of water on arrival, and there is one food van servicing them all. 

Supermarket chains in the UK have warned that, should the disruption continue beyond midnight on 22 December, there will be shortages of some fresh foods such as citrus and broccoli. That could worsen the longer restrictions last, Ian Wright, Chief Executive of the Food and Drink Federation, told an emergency session of the UK parliament's business, energy and industrial strategy committee.

Carrying goods across the Channel wasn't exactly a cakewalk before the travel ban came in.

The combined impact of Christmas stockpiling and reduced ferry and train connections caused major tailbacks in northern France.

“For weeks already, truck drivers have been stuck in Calais, exposed to plight and misery,” with no access to food, toilets or showers, no regular rest, a lack of security and “huge unresolved migrant issues,” the European Transport Workers' Federation (ETF) said on 21 December. “Now the COVID-19 crisis has added a new dimension.”

With the end of Brexit transition looming on 1 January, Wright of the Food and Drink Federation warned there could be worse to come. “Once there’s any kind of disruption, the system is potentially compromised,” Wright said.

"It's just a tiny peek at what could happen either in the first few days or first few weeks of the transition period ending, and it would be compounded by tariffs and a no-deal," Wright cautioned. "A lot of companies would have intended to stockpile in that post-Christmas period, that may now be compromised."

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