By John Sibley
DOVER, England (Reuters) -Angry truck drivers briefly scuffled with police in the streets of Dover on Wednesday as a partial blockade by France designed to stop the spread of a new highly infectious coronavirus variant left thousands stranded before Christmas.
Paris and London agreed late on Tuesday that drivers carrying a negative COVID-19 test result could board ferries for Calais after much of the world shut its borders to Britain to contain the new mutated variant.
A British minister said the military would start testing drivers but he warned that it would take time to clear the backlog, hammering Britain’s most important trade route for food just days before it leaves the European Union’s orbit.
TV footage showed drivers honking their truck horns and flashing lights in unison in the dark while in the early hours of the morning many gathered in the roads around the port to vent their frustration and question officials and police.
Scuffles briefly broke out with a small number of police officers.
Many were in the country to deliver goods to companies who are stockpiling parts before Britain finally leaves the EU on Dec. 31, a move that is expected to cause further disruption in January when a full customs border comes into force.
Logistics groups have warned that many European drivers have already refused to come to Britain in the new year when they will have to carry customs paperwork, and the need to secure a COVID-19 test will further compound the situation, pushing up freight prices.
“I hope that this morning, you’ll see people and HGVs crossing the Channel at the short straits,” British Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick told Sky News.
“We’re putting in place the infrastructure. So the armed forces will be doing that (COVID testing) in the first instance to help us to set that up and to get through some of the backlog that you’ve seen.”
Drivers will first take a lateral flow COVID-19 test. Anyone who records a positive result will take a more comprehensive PCR test, which takes longer to secure a result, and anyone testing positive again will be given a hotel room to isolate.
The mostly European drivers, many stranded with their trucks and without access to hot food or bathroom facilities, have grown increasingly angry as it became clear they may not get home in time for Christmas with their families.
“They don’t give us food, they don’t give us drinks, they don’t give us sanitation, they don’t offer us anything,” he said in Spanish. “The situation is basically inhumane, so what we are asking for is a solution.”
“I think and believe that this happening now isn’t due to coronavirus or anything, it’s due to Brexit, due to internal politics or something of that manner.”
(Editing by Kate Holton/Guy Faulconbridge )