Army sent in as thousands of lorry drivers spend Christmas Day stranded in Dover

Thousands of lorry drivers will spend Christmas Day cooped up in their cabs at the English Channel border as work to clear the backlog continues to make slow progress.

More than 300 soldiers were deployed yesterday to help carry out coronavirus tests, hand out food and organise welfare facilities after the French government demanded a negative result from drivers before boarding a train or ferry.

They are set to be joined by an additional 800 military personnel this morning as part of the effort to clear the 4,000 lorries still waiting to cross.

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, many have now spent nearly a week holed up in their vehicles.

Transport Secretary 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.’

French firefighters have also joined the effort, according to the BBC, while the Polish defence minister said in a tweet that a group of territorial army soldiers would be deployed to Kent.

The Department for Transport (DfT) said all but three of the 2,367 coronavirus tests issued to hauliers have been negative.

The government said catering vans would also 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.

Mersham residents Jan and David James walked between lines of queuing lorries handing out food to drivers.

Mrs James, 69, a former teacher told Kent Online: ‘We went round knocking on doors in Mersham asking if people had any spare food and they have been brilliant.

‘They gave us lots of food in bags and we then took it to the bridges.

‘We have had tins of beans, orange juice, fruit, biscuits, crisps and corn beef – anything the lorry drivers could eat with their fingers but I think most of them have cutlery anyway.

‘A lot of the drivers were asking us how far away Tesco was and many of them were walking to the supermarket.

‘We ran out of food in the end but we could have gone on and on – it was just something we felt we had to do for the poor blokes.

‘When we went back up the steps onto the bridge, a whole group of them clapped us – it was quite emotional.’

She praised the community saying it was a ‘typical English village with a fantastic community spirit’, adding: ‘The most important thing is that the drivers can get home to their families.’

There are now 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.’

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